A Tragic Mistake Caused by 'Over-motivation'

The friendly-fire incident that killed Sgt. Gabriel Cepic on Monday on the Gaza border is an indirect result of a disconcerting tradition begun during the Second Lebanon War.

In 2006 the military leadership displayed an indecisiveness that often translated into muddled orders on the battlefield. Field commanders, who had accumulated combat experience only via routine security operations in the West Bank, repeatedly failed to show the necessary determination of purpose in southern Lebanon.

After the war, major generals Yoram Yair and Elazar Stern released a damning report on the collapse of the army's "combat values," claiming that in Lebanon it had shown disproportionate concern for human life at the expense of meeting military goals - in their view, the army's "most important value."

Upon becoming chief of staff three years ago, Gabi Ashkenazi chose to reemphasize adherence to the mission in any combat situation. Two years ago he dismissed a tank battalion commander who decided against pursuing a group of terrorists who had killed two Israeli civilians near Gaza. No further action was necessary to make his message understood to field commanders.

And yet his directive was a double-edged sword. A week after the dismissal, in the same area, a Givati Brigade company commander chased after two gunmen and fell into an ambush. Three of his men were killed.

From the army's perspective, this is a risk that must be taken. The ultimate goal in the case of terrorist infiltration from Gaza is preventing a massacre in a nearby Israeli community. To that end, in such circumstances commanders are instructed to seek a confrontation.

In Monday evening's incident, Cepic's armored unit was alerted that a group of infiltrators had been spotted along the Gaza fence (they were later found to be unarmed). The troops, who were already preparing to move elsewhere, were not ready for a clash. The platoon commander and two troops ran toward the infiltration site, but in the chaos of the situation they didn't have helmets, flak jackets or communication devices.

The Golani Brigade force that arrived from the opposite direction misidentified the tank crew as infiltrators and opened fire, killing Cepic. Had the troops waited a moment to radio in their operation and taken equipment identifying them as Israeli soldiers, tragedy could probably have been averted.

The initial army investigation reveals that the platoon commander had fallen victim to "over-motivation." Nonetheless, it is unlikely he will be dismissed from his post. The military will find it hard to apply a heavy hand to the commander who after all had only followed the code he had been taught for opening fire.

The incident also revealed failings in coordination and command. It is a phenomenon typical of a twilight-zone situation in which Hamas is apparently maintaining its cease-fire with Israel, but rockets continue to strike the western Negev almost daily and command centers are flooded with intelligence alerts of possible infiltrations.

In the West Bank, three similar mishaps occurred in the past week, all of them by soldiers with the Kfir Brigade. Four unarmed Palestinians were killed over 24 hours in two clashes near Nablus, both in circumstances that seem to violate regulations for opening fire. In the third incident, unarmed soldiers entered Palestinian Authority territory during a drill and were physically assaulted by residents.

In the meantime, Military Advocate General Avichai Mendelblit has ordered an investigation into one of the incidents in Nablus. The army initially said the two men killed were struck by rubber-coated bullets, but the PA produced X-ray images that seemed to show they were hit by live fire. The army investigation will focus on two matters - whether live fire was used in violation of regulations, and if so, whether the soldiers lied about what really happened.