Analysis

Death of Imprisoned Soldier Points to IDF's Three Well-known Vulnerabilities

IDF chief would be wise to thoroughly examine the army's tough policy on soft drugs, the state of the military prisons and the quality of medical care

An Israeli army prison for female prisoners.
Walla News

Over the past few months, Israel Defense Forces Chief of Staff Gadi Eisenkot has devoted many hours to the legal fate of a single soldier, Pvt. Elor Azaria. His decision to reduce Azaria’s sentence by four months was preceded by numerous discussions with military prosecutors and senior IDF officers both past and present.

Eisenkot was right to treat this issue with due seriousness. Azaria was and still is his soldier, and his killing of Abdel Fattah al-Sharif, a Palestinian assailant who was already subdued and was lying, wounded, on the ground, along with the public uproar that ensued, will influence the IDF’s combat values in the coming years.

But now that the Azaria affair has been removed from the agenda, perhaps the high command will have time to look into the tragic fate of another soldier, Cpl. D., a 19-year-old airplane technician in the Israel Air Force.

As Haaretz reported on Tuesday, D. was arrested almost two weeks ago on suspicion of a relatively minor crime, smoking marijuana (there are also unproven allegations that she was involved in buying drugs for colleagues in her unit). After a week in jail, she complained of chest pains and breathing trouble.

She was examined by a medic and returned to her cell, but two days later, she collapsed. She spent a week and a half in the hospital in critical condition and she died on Tuesday morning.

D.’s parents sent the army a healthy young woman, an outstanding athlete, and got her back with severe, irreversible brain damage. It’s possible that there was no connection between her prison conditions and her collapse, and that she suffered a medical complication she could have also suffered in civilian life. But the army is obligated to get to the bottom of the case and provide the family with a full explanation of what happened, to the best of its knowledge.

In a case this extreme, it’s tremendously important to fully understand the circumstances, and if necessary, to draw conclusions that will prevent a recurrence.

Neither the IDF nor the hospital has presented an explanation for what happened yet. The chain of events is currently being investigated by the IDF manpower directorate’s internal inquires department, and will undoubtedly be investigated by the medical corps as well.

But based on the information available so far, D.’s tragic case touches on three known weak points that together comprise the IDF’s soft underbelly in caring for its soldiers: a policy of strict punishment for soft drug offenses, the conditions in military prisons and the type of medical care soldiers receive.

In civilian life, a woman of D.’s age suspected of using soft drugs would never even have been arrested. The army, for well-known reasons, has taken a harder line on soft drug use for years, but at the price of overburdening its justice system, jailing thousands of otherwise ordinary soldiers and stigmatizing them with a criminal record that will follow them for years after they have demobilized.

As Haaretz has previously reported, the IDF decided in September to change its policy and treat cases involving one-time soft drug use while on leave much more leniently. But the vast army bureaucracy moves slowly, so many soldiers are still entangled in such charges.

This, coupled with the problem of soldiers who go AWOL or desert, still imposes a huge burden on military prisons. Moreover, these prisons are housed in antiquated, neglected buildings dating back to the British Mandate, and inmates are often treated in a rigid, close-minded fashion.

The third problem is also the biggest. It affects almost every soldier and it’s well known to parents. The IDF’s combat medicine system is among the most advanced in the world; it is unrivaled in its ability to save the lives of seriously wounded combatants on the battlefield. But when it comes to routine care, from medical checkups to specialist referrals, the system is far more cumbersome.

The burdensome bureaucracy, apathy on the part of commanders and mistaken diagnoses by junior medics are all longstanding problems. Some of this stems from the burden imposed by false complaints and feigned illnesses among soldiers in compulsory service seeking medical leave. Nevertheless, reading the IDF ombudsman’s annual reports shows that for at least the past two decades, the army has been dealing with this problem very slowly, and this foot-dragging comes at the soldiers’ expense.

D. was apparently caught in this deadly triangle of IDF problems and lost her life as a result. The chief of staff would be wise to insist that everyone responsible for dealing with the issue – the air force, the medical corps and the manpower directorate – conduct a thorough, uncompromising investigation into this terrible incident.