Rape Allegations Against Israeli General Catch Military by Surprise

The case of Brig. Gen Ofek Buchris has brought issue into the limelight, but the army is far ahead of other public institutions in terms of women’s safety.

Ofek Buchris, 2010.
Itzik Ben Malki

The suspicions against Brig. Gen Ofek Buchris generated real surprise in the Israel Defense Forces on Tuesday. He has never been suspected of any previous criminal or ethical offenses.

Moreover, this is that rare case in which the clichés are true: He really is one of the best IDF field officers of the past two decades. He has fought on every major front, was seriously wounded in Operation Defensive Shield in the West Bank in 2002 and awarded a chief of staff citation for his performance as a battalion commander. And until now, he has been considered a shoo-in for the General Staff. Next week, he was slated to be promoted to the key post of head the IDF’s Operations Division.

But none of that matters to the legal process. The complainant, a former soldier who served under Buchris four years ago, is accusing him of rape and other serious sexual offenses, not mere sexual harassment, and of exploiting his position as her commander. The commander, who is almost twice her age, denies everything, and his attorneys cite two polygraph tests that they say disprove her allegations and reveal contradictions in her testimony.

The case is far from over. On Tuesday, military court judge Col. Maya Heller decided there was prima facie evidence against the officer and approved lifting the gag order on his name. From Buchris’s standpoint, publishing his name at such an early stage of the proceedings could do him a great injustice, turning him into a defendant in the public’s eyes when he hasn’t yet even been indicted. But the prosecution, aside from believing the evidence warrants it, had another reason for wanting the gag order lifted: If there are other potential complainants in the officer’s past, publishing his name might spur them to come forward.

Nevertheless, the learned legal dispute on this issue was already somewhat detached from reality. Anyone with an Internet connection could have discovered the suspect’s name Tuesday night in a few minutes on social media. And since websites and television stations had already published his picture with his face blurred, running the picture through a search engine would have also quickly revealed his identity.

IDF Chief of Staff Gadi Eisenkot was Buchris’s commander for many years and has repeatedly pushed for his promotion. But the seriousness of the complainant’s allegations left the army no choice: Buchris was suspended immediately and his slated appointment put on hold.

Given the unequivocal way Eisenkot has acted in similar cases over the past year, it seems unlikely that Buchris will be given any discounts. If the complainant’s allegations are proven, this will be the end of his military career, despite his outstanding record.

But there’s another, more important question: Is the IDF a safe service environment for young women? The current case is the most high-profile of the last few years. Several years ago, allegations were made against a major general on the General Staff, but these proved false. In two other cases, colonels have confessed to exploiting their superior-subordinate relationship or sexual harassment. Just last week, a battalion commander was suspended on suspicion of having an affair with a female officer serving under him.

Nevertheless, it seems the army has come a long way in the last 17 years. The IDF is far from being an association of gentlemen, but it’s certainly in better shape than the police, where five major generals have recently been indicted and others have resigned due to allegations against them.

The turning point was a 1999 case in which the High Court of Justice took the rare step of overturning Nir Galili’s promotion to major general because he had been convicted in a disciplinary proceeding of having sex with a female soldier under his command. Since then, the army has taken many steps to fight sexual harassment, often well ahead of other public-sector organizations.

The IDF does a lot of educational work on this issue in all its units. It operates a hotline for harassment victims and has imposed both disciplinary and criminal sanctions, sometimes harsh ones, on people convicted of sexual offenses. The chief of staff’s advisor on women’s issues has a special status that allows her to intervene in planned promotions of officers even if criminal cases against them were closed.

Still, it’s impossible to ignore the fundamental Achilles’ heel: Army service on closed bases in remote locations puts officers and NCOs in positions of power over the young women under them, and some will always exploit this. For the IDF, as for any other army, this is an invitation to trouble.

Yet even so, a conversation with any female soldier in the IDF today will reveal that they are better protected than their mothers were during their army service – and apparently also than policewomen or municipal employees are even today.