What the Israeli Army Doesn't Teach Its Future Commanders

Haaretz was surprised to see that a recent course for infantry squad commanders essentially skipped over the incident of Hebron shooter Elor Azaria and the lessons of the 2014 Gaza war

Soldiers participating in an exercise at the Israel Defense Forces Tze'elim base, in southern Israel, March 12, 2018.
Eliyahu Hershkovitz

Soldiers from the Israel Defense Forces Golani infantry brigade were deployed throughout the Palestinian town of Mala late one morning. Some were sitting on the steps of the local mosque. Others had entered homes and there were also those who were lounging around in the courtyards of public buildings near the town square. Their mission had been accomplished. The troops had captured the town and could now catch up on their rest and find refuge from the blazing sun.

"Mala" is actually a Hebrew acronym for “merkaz imunim l’lehima urbanit” (center for urban combat training). It is located inside the Green Line, on the Tze’elim army base in the south – not in the West Bank. Its conquest is part of an exercise wrapping up a three-month training course for squad commanders from all IDF infantry units that simulates combat in built-up areas. At the end of the course, graduates will be assigned to command and train groups of 10 to 12 combat soldiers.

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Haaretz recently sat in one such course, designed to turn out professional squad commanders with the requisite skills, but conversations with those involved in the training and with participants themselves, in addition to a review of the content of the course, raised a number of questions pertaining to how future Israel army officers are being trained, and whether such courses actually impart the necessary leadership skills and teach the values and content that their participants should be getting.

Past research has shown that squad commanders and sergeants constitute the core of the IDF's daily work, including its operational missions, more than officers of more senior rank. Nevertheless, the content of the course they were receiving while we were on hand was limited.

Tremendous effort was put into simulating the capture of a Palestinian locale and in the physical-fitness training of the participants, but when it came to other aspects of the course – including instilling leadership and other values, and open discussions that could help the future officers grapple with some of the complex issues they might need to address with soldiers under their command – such subjects were marginalized, if talked about at all.

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“Eighty-five percent of this course involves operational professional content. That’s the main axis of the course,” said Col. Amit Yamin, head of the School for Infantry Corps Professions and Squad Commanders. The course is not designed to expand the pool of future officers per se: That task is entrusted to the courses for training more senior officers, where Yamin says there is an emphasis on leadership and values.

When it comes to teaching a future squad commander, the expectation is that he will lead his troops in training and routine combat exercises. The emphasis, explains Yamin, is on running quickly, shooting well “and being the No. 1 combat soldier in his unit.”

Absent from the course we witnessed was any mention, for example, of the case of Elor Azaria – the soldier convicted of manslaughter in the 2016 shooting and killing in Hebron of a Palestinian terrorist, who had been subdued and was lying on the ground. Nor did those teaching the course address the incident involving Ahed Tamimi, the Palestinian teenager who was jailed for eight months after she was caught on video slapping an IDF soldier, in December 2017.

What was discussed included the IDF's legacy of combat from various periods in the past. The history of the War of Independence, and the capture of Mount Hermon in the Golan Heights and Ammunition Hill in Jerusalem during the 1967 Six-Day War were given much more prominent attention than the first and second Lebanon Wars, or Operation Defensive Edge against Hamas in the Gaza Strip in 2014 – to say nothing of the army’s failures in those wars. There was also no talk of army violations of international law or of violent treatment of Palestinians in the West Bank.

An outsider might expect that one focus of the squad commanders' course would reflect the processes the IDF has undergone over the past four years and how it has adapted itself to contemporary warfare. However, when the participants were asked about these topics, they didn’t demonstrate much knowledge, to put it mildly.

“You don’t understand the role of the squad commander in infantry brigades,” Yamin said when asked about this, explaining that recent developments are an important focus in the training of higher-ranking officers, and adding that the course we saw does deal to some extent with the values and principles an IDF officer should have.

Yamin: “We have a workshop on the first day of the course where we speak about leadership and the significance of what it means to be a commander with values. We also have a four-day program during which the participants try to understand which [type of] commander they would want to be and what the requisite attributes are, but I don’t think it’s right to talk to them about sensitive subjects. They’re not at that stage of command, and these are subjects that are addressed by platoon commanders and up, after an officers training course.”

Following the training exercise we witnessed, Yamin expressed reservations about Haaretz interviewing the soldiers. “Your questions could confuse them. They haven’t been prepared for this kind of questions. Not everyone knows how to be interviewed. It doesn’t seem to me to be appropriate.”

Then came an announcement from the IDF Spokesman’s Office that additional meetings that had been scheduled with the Haaretz reporter were being cancelled due to time constraints.

The preference in the course in question was apparently not to dwell on principles and certain leadership-related subjects, but these issues have received considerable attention from researchers. For example, an IDF study, four years after the 2006 Second Lebanon War, including 70 squad commanders who fought in that war, found that a third of them had not undergone any prior preparation for going into battle. About 40 percent of the respondents (out of a total of 438 soldiers) expressed a negative view of how the squad commanders functioned in combat, from the standpoint of professionalism and leadership. The commanders also received negative assessments in the study from the soldiers under their command.

“The squad commanders had difficulty dealing mainly with soldiers suffering from emotional crises in combat, who refused to carry out orders because they were afraid, or who had trouble functioning due to a shortage of food and water, or who were suffering from shell shock,” wrote Maj. Keren Turgeman, of the army’s behavioral science unit, who conducted the 2010 study. “The squad commanders are directly in command of the soldiers, unlike other command ranks,” she added.

Since the Second Lebanon War, there have been various developments related to the length of service and training in the IDF, including changes in squad commanders’ and other courses, which are being tailored to specific needs. “Today every brigade has its special tools,” says Col. Yamin.

When asked why the commanders’ course that Haaretz observed lacked more extensive emphasis on leadership and military values, one brigade commander said: “We teach leadership content in the brigade setting throughout the [army] service” of every soldier. However, he added: “It could be that they don’t get enough of an emphasis in this course on values. This is something that needs to be looked at.” The officer suggested that it also may be appropriate to use certain high-profile incidents to teach future officers about how to command their troops.

The issue of educating soldiers in leadership values is not a new one in the IDF. Indeed, in a letter to army brass in 1959, Haim Laskov, the-then IDF chief of staff, wrote that “the junior commander, beginning at the level of the squad commander, is the rank that above all determines the success or lack of success in the contact with the enemy in battle.” Laskov also raised the possibility that lower level commanders should receive training within their units, rather than in the framework of special army educational programs.

The IDF Spokesman’s Unit did not respond to this article before press time.