Israeli Military Exploits Heroism Culture to Evade Accountability Over Friendly-fire Deaths

The policy of severely punishing soldiers for the loss of equipment may be reasonable, but one of its unreasonable results is that commanders frequently go out on improvised hunts for thieves with fatal consequences

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The Nabi Musa military training base, on Thursday.
The Nabi Musa military training base, on Thursday.Credit: Ohad Zwigenberg
Amos Harel
Amos Harel

Wednesday’s friendly-fire accident in which two company commanders were killed must bring about a change in the army’s operational culture and in how it investigates mishaps and mistakes. The accident's circumstances were unusal: the two soldiers, Maj. Ofek Aharon and Maj. Itamar Elharar of the elite Egoz unit played central roles in the operation, and their unnecessary deaths took place during routine activity rather than in wartime or in a training exercise. These circumstances should be the impetus for a more thorough investigation and wider-ranging conclusions.

Since the incident, army staff have made a two-pronged PR effort aimed at establishing a singular narrative regarding the incident. First, the unsupervised manhunt for suspected weapons thieves is now being hailed as an act of heroism in Israel’s never-ending battle over sovereignty. Second, they are deliberately disassociating the accident from changes in open-fire directives that were approved several months ago.

That’s a mistake, because the ideological and emotional conversation obscures the situation and will make it harder to investigate the tragedy’s causes. It’s a shame that an outstanding and fair officer such as the commander of the officers’ school has been dragged into it. (The two dead, he wrote to his cadets, died “for an important value – our sovereignty in this land.”) It’s even more regrettable that Prime Minister Naftali Bennett has fallen into this trap instead of demanding satisfactory answers from the army.

Over the past several years, the Israel Defense Forces’ open-fire directives have undergone two changes following a surge in weapons thefts – primarily by Bedouin in the vicinity of the Tze’elim base in the Negev. Initially, during the tenure of the previous army chief of staff, Gadi Eisenkot, permission was given to follow the full arrest protocol when faced with thieves who infiltrate an army base to steal weapons. That protocol includes shooting at their legs.

Last November, following major disagreement, the current chief of staff, Aviv Kochavi, approved easing the directives further. When weapons theft is suspected, permission is now granted to shoot at suspects’ legs in firing zones, which are not fenced in and where more civilians move around on a daily basis.

IDF Chief of Staff Aviv Kochavi in Tel Aviv, November 2019.Credit: REUTERS/Corinna Kern

As reported by Haaretz, the comptroller who oversees the defense agencies and the Defense Ministry’s internal comptroller issued a report warning about the more recent of the two changes before it went into effect. They warned that it could lead to forbidden use of weapons and needless death.

The chief of staff’s decision wasn’t made in a vacuum. The country has indeed been dealing with growing violence from unauthorized Bedouin villages, some out of political motives and directed at soldiers and army bases. The weapons thefts have become increasingly daring, including thefts committed with soldiers present. There have been incidents in which soldiers have been attacked during orienteering exercises in the Negev and Galilee in an attempt to steal their weapons and perhaps also to abduct soldiers.

At the same time, political pressure has increased. Knesset members have spoken out in favor of more lenient open-fire directives. Right-wing religious organizations have conducted campaigns claiming the army is tying its combat soldiers’ hands. In addition, following shooting incidents in the territories, most notably the death of sharpshooter Barel Hadaria Shmueli in a clash on the border with the Gaza Strip, there was a political effort to attribute the tragic outcome to stricter prohibitions, when in reality it was the result of tactical mistakes in deploying ground troops.

The impression once again has been created that the army’s senior command has refrained from getting into a confrontation with those who applying the pressure and is hesitant to take a definitive and principled stance publicly. In the process, a situation has been created in which the army has been gradually taking the same approach to Palestinian terrorists and criminal suspects – Israeli civilians inside the 1967 Green Line. (Lawless behavior among the Bedouin also contributes to this trend).

These matters are relevant to the investigation of Wednesday’s accident because they are indicative of the state of mind that the officers on both sides in the friendly-fire incident are thought to have had. They had set out to search the training ground at the Nabi Musa base without prior coordination and without even taking communications equipment with them. In addition, there was the pressure applied on the combat units and within the units to prevent weapon thefts at all costs, particularly pieces of expensive night-vision equipment (one of which was lost on the ground a night prior to the accident).

The parents of combat soldiers in three infantry brigades have told Haaretz of the severe punishment of soldiers, generally entire teams, over the loss of equipment. That policy may be reasonable under certain circumstances if the army is determined to curb the thefts. But one of its unreasonable results is that commanders frequently go out on improvised hunts for suspected thieves.

Since Wednesday’s accident, reporters have been getting numerous phone calls from friends who are veterans of infantry brigades whose sons have followed in their footsteps in their army service. They say almost exactly the same thing: Our sons have been in rather similar incidents that didn’t result in the same tragedy, but only due to a lot of luck. Along the way, hair-raising accounts have been heard of a lack of planning, faulty operational standards and a lack of discipline – concealed by an enthusiastic fighting spirit to confront the enemy.

The Nabi Musa training camp, on Thursday.Credit: Ohad Zwigenberg

Veterans of the Egoz unit, which was reestablished in its current iteration in the mid-1990s, are particularly disturbed. The unit was built as a commando force specializing in guerrilla warfare at a time when Israel maintained a security zone in southern Lebanon. Splitting up and bringing together small sub-forces in the course of a mission was its daily routine. Safety precautions, as the cliché goes, were indeed written in blood.

The chief of staff appointed Maj. Gen. (res.) Noam Tibon to head the team of experts investigating Wednesday’s accident. But in this case, Tibon also represents the public, the combat soldiers and their parents. The IDF brass have hesitated for too long to deal directly with the phenomenon of lax discipline, which is also evident in operational incidents. In light of the public shock over the disaster, perhaps we have a chance to remedy the situation – with less self-congratulation, fewer heroic exploits and a more serious and thorough accounting regarding shortcomings and lessons to be drawn.

First to spot it

Over three years ago, Haaretz began reporting about the warnings issued by Maj. Gen. (res.) Yitzhak Brik, the outgoing IDF ombudsman at the time. Brik leveled pointed criticism over the situation – the army’s management of resources, level of preparedness for war, training of commanders and faulty organizational culture, which he said at times had encouraged lying and coverups. His reproach didn’t sit well with the chiefs of staff – neither the current one nor his predecessor.

It’s absolutely possible that Brik’s conclusions were somewhat over the top, but as time passes, it is becoming increasingly clear how right he was in asserting that there was a lack of oversight and widespread violation of rules and of discipline. Brik was correct. In retrospect, he was the first one to spot it.

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