Fallout From Hebron Shooter Affair

Only 41% of Israeli Troops Think Superiors Will Back Them if They Make Error

Senior army officer says finding is worrisome, but it conflicts with commanders' impressions in field.

A rally in support of Elor Azaria in outside the military court in Tel Aviv, January 4, 2017.
Ilan Assayag

Signs of a crisis among combat soldiers on issues such as how important they think their service is, and their willingness to become officers, have appeared in research conducted by the Israel Defense Forces behavioral research unit recently.

One particularly troubling finding is related to the case of Sgt. Elor Azaria, who was recently convicted of manslaughter. Only 41 percent of combat soldiers surveyed feel their commanders will back them up if they make a mistake while carrying out their duties. This figure is much lower than the 51 percent of all soldiers who said they felt their commanders would back them up. In comparison, the numbers for soldiers in technical and office jobs was halfway between these figures, 46 percent and 47 percent respectively.

The authors of the study wrote specifically in their conclusions that “it can be assumed that these findings were influenced by the events with Elor Azaria.” The research has already been presented to senior officers in the IDF. Haaretz has obtained the results.

The data show one optimistic note: relative stability in the satisfaction on the part of combat soldiers from their military service, 73 percent say they are satisfied, a figure similar to the number from 2014 and only slightly below the 76 percent in 2012.

Army drill in southern Israel last month.
Amir Cohen/Reuters

In comparison, when combat soldiers were asked to what extent they agree that those who serve in a combat unit contribute more to the country than those who serve elsewhere in the military, only 40 percent agreed. This is a sharp drop; two years ago the figure was 54 percent, and even among all soldiers the percentage has dropped from 50 percent two years ago to 41 percent now.

Soldiers’ opinions of their direct commanders fell steeply too. Some 76 percent of combat soldiers said they were pleased with their commanders in 2012, while this figure fell to 65 percent in 2014, now it is only 61 percent. For allsoldiers in compulsory service, not just combat soldiers, the percentage is 69 percent.

Only 23 percent of combat soldiers said they wanted to become officers, 1 percent lower than in 2014, but much lower than the 33 percent in 2012. The willingness to sign up to serve in the professional military has been falling consistently, from 41 percent in 2012 to 32 percent in 2014, and only 25 percent in the most recent survey.

Combat duty losing prestige

The authors of the study concluded that a significant gap exists between infantry soldiers and other combat troops (armor, artillery, combat engineers) in their satisfaction, pride and sense of being needed. This drop in the sense of importance of combat duty extends not only to these combat soldiers, but to all soldiers as well as to young people before enlistment. The number of combat soldiers who feel they are making full use of their skills has also fallen.

These conclusions are backed up by other events taking place in IDF manpower in recent years. For example, many of those being drafted, particularly those with high ability, are turning to more complex and prestigious roles, but to less dangerous ones too – and sometimes to those that pose no risk at all – such as cyber units, drone operators and aerial defense units. The IDF Spokesman’s Office declined to comment on the report, saying this was an internal survey conducted by the IDF.

Nonetheless, a senior General Staff officer told Haaretz the data concerning combat soldiers’ worries over a lack of support require a follow-up by the military, but do not match the impression commanders have of what is happening in their units.

“We have not seen any signs of a crisis around the question of support as a result of the Azaria trial,” said the senior officer. But he admitted that the question of the deterioration of the status of combat soldiers compared to that of technological roles reflects a real problem, one that the military will need to deal with urgently.

“Combat soldiers must be at the center of our attention. In the end, they are the ones who determine the results of the war,” he said.