Sex, Lies and Alleged War Crimes Ratchet Up Tensions Between Religious and IDF

Brig. Gen. Ofer Winter is the latest senior officer to come under media scrutiny, with religious politicians, and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, rushing to his defense.

Amos Harel
Send in e-mailSend in e-mail
Brig.Gen. Ofer Winter commands a Givati Brigade exercise in January 2015.
Brig.Gen. Ofer Winter commands a Givati Brigade exercise in January 2015.Credit: IDF Spokesman
Amos Harel

Yet another grenade is being tossed at the heated relationship between the army and religion, amid a spate of recently exposed sex crimes, in the guise of an expose being aired on Tuesday, on Channel 10's investigative program called Hamakor ("The Source").

The program will focus on Brig. Gen. Ofer Winter, commander of the Givati infantry brigade during Operation Protective Edge and, in the eyes of many religious Zionists, a hero of the 2014 campaign.

The investigation by Hamakor's senior journalist, Raviv Drucker, centers on the ouster of Liran Hajbi, a Givati battalion commander accused of sex crimes against two female soldiers under his command, and of trying to stifle another complaint about a platoon leader in the brigade who sexually harassed two of his soldiers.

These affairs were exposed about two years ago by reporter Carmela Menashe of Israel Radio. In an ensuing trial, Hajbi was convicted of conduct unbecoming an officer, demoted a rank to major and fired.

Haaretz gave extensive coverage to the vengeful way in which Winter and Hajbi, backed by the head of the Southern Command at the time, Sami Turgeman, handled Major B., Hajbi’s deputy battalion commander and the whistleblower against him.

Maj. B. was removed from his post for "disloyalty" after reporting that his commanding officer was suspected of sexual harassment and indecent assault. Later though he was named to a command position by the head of the Home Front Command, Yoel Strick.

Ahead of Tuesday's show Oded Savuray, on Monday launched a preemptive attack through the amiable offices of Army Radio.

Savuray accused Drucker of sending an investigator four years ago to tape Winter in his office, hoping to set him up in a case involving the shooting of a Palestinian boy, and thus foil his planned promotion at the time to Givati commander. Winter learned of the plot, Savuray said, following the investigator’s admission.

Drucker’s version of events is categorically different. He says the “investigator” was a former soldier of Winter’s who testified that on Winter’s command, he and Winter opened fire at a boy in Gaza, without justification. The soldier was consensually sent to talk with Winter and record him.

The show didn’t air because the soldier turned out to be in a poor mental state. Ironically, on Monday Drucker publicized the story for the first time, following Savuray’s charges. Hamakor says it has recorded evidence from another soldier, too.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu took the opportunity to attack Drucker and his supposed co-conspirators for ganging up on Winter. On his Facebook page, Netanyahu  linked Drucker, Yedioth Ahronoth publisher Noni Mozes and the New Israel Fund, throwing Winter into the stew as their common victim.

Winter had been described in Yedioth as “the face” of the 2014 Gaza campaign, and won any number of adulatory articles, but it seems that in such matters Netanyahu is not a man of nuance.

Education Minster Naftali Bennett, a friend of Winter’s from their army days, stood by him and demanded that Channel 10 take steps against Drucker. Yair Lapid, who usually leaps to the defense of army officers against real and imagined dangers, hasn’t reacted yet.

>> In war over Israeli hearts and minds, army becomes ideological battlefield <<

But it is doubtful if that broadside by Savuray (who is coincidentally also an attorney for accused sex offender former Brig. Gen. Ofek Buchris) is helpful to Winter. Not only does trying to block a broadcast give it the best publicity, but Winter’s identification with Bennett doesn’t give him points in the eyes of his commanders.

Does he really want to remind the chief of staff of his close ties with a prominent politician who already got him into trouble during the mission in Gaza, when it turned out they’d met without the permission of Maj. Gen. Gadi Eisenkot’s then-commanders?

The other problem is that this affair, too, has become a “tribal” matter, ostensibly another action against outstanding officers from the religious Zionist camp.

Winter’s problem isn’t necessarily among “his” community but with the broad general public, mothers and fathers who want to know that the army isn’t covering up sexual attacks on their children in the service. (In Hajbi’s battalion, there was also large-scale arms thefts, suicides and an effort to silence potential witnesses.)

The choice to rely on ideological support from right-wing broadcasters on Army Radio to the education minister, is looking like a mistake.

Wondrous are the ways of army appointments. A year and a half ago, despite mixed feelings about his performance as commander of Givati, Winter was promoted anyway, but named to a relatively junior position as head of operations at Central Command.

In the weeks to come, Winter will have to help the command prepare to face the wrath of settlers over a court-ordered evacuation due later this month of the unauthorized settler outpost, Amona.