A team of reconnaissance fighters from the Israel Defense Forces Golani Brigade committed a hate crime against Palestinians in a Nablus refugee camp, but their commanders decided not to punish the troops involved. A Haaretz investigative report about the incident shows that when the information about what transpired reached senior officers in the infantry brigade, including its commander, it was decided to cover up the whole episode. The top IDF brass only learned what happened after Haaretz sought a response from them – more than two years after the fact.
The Nablus incident, which took place during the night between February 15-16, 2018, is rooted in a different event that also involved the functioning of the IDF's Golani Brigade: Two days earlier there had been a multi-vehicle accident on Route 6 in which three of its reconnaissance fighters were killed – members of a team commanded by 1st Lt. Guy Eliahu.
The dry facts are that the soldiers were traveling in a convoy of three camouflaged Hummers, slowly and close together on the main highway, with only dim red lights. At one point they came to a sudden stop, whereupon a truck ran into the last vehicle; two soldiers were killed immediately and a third died later of his injuries; other soldiers were also lightly injured.
A Haaretz (Hebrew edition) report in March shed light on a series of failures in the conduct of those involved in that accident (both before and after it), revealing what appear to be coordinated testimonies, efforts to obstruct justice, a forged document and senior Golani officers who turned a blind eye to what actually happened. Eliahu, for his part, was eventually punished much later with a very brief prison sentence.
From new information gathered here, it emerges that the February 13, 2018 accident was part of a chain of events. Two days later Eliahu and his troops arrived at the settlement of Shavei Shomron in the northern West Bank, where the elite reconnaissance battalion was based while conducting routine security operations.
The soldiers were in low spirits and the battalion commander, Lt. Col. Shimon Siso, decided the best thing would be to get them quickly back into a routine. “They have to resume activity so they don’t get depressed,” Siso reportedly told the battalion officers.
That same day it was decided to send Eliahu and his team on a nighttime arrest operation in the Nablus refugee camp. When the fighters returned to Shavei Shomron before dawn, they did not report any unusual occurrences. But later in the morning a soldier from the Civil Administration, the governing Israeli body operating in the territories, came to the base. After asking to speak to those in charge, he was referred to Siso. The soldier told him that he had received documentation from local Palestinians showing that soldiers from Eliahu’s team had vandalized cars in the refugee camp and punctured their tires.
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Siso ordered an investigation of the incident. When it became clear that everything had been documented and that other IDF brass were aware of what had transpired – Eliahu confessed to the acts of vandalism. He claimed that his fighters felt a need to take revenge on Arabs, because the driver of the truck that caused the accident on Route 6 a few days earlier had been an Arab from East Jerusalem.
Under questioning Eliahu testified that after making arrests during the night in question, one of his soldiers started to vandalize a car to “let off steam.” When the other fighters saw this, he said, they decided to join in, damaging other vehicles and threatening Palestinians who were in the area. Eliahu did not stop them. “I felt that I had to let them vent,” he said. “We wanted to avenge the attack [i.e., the accident].”
When the investigation ended, Siso consulted with other officers in the brigade and called Eliahu in for a talk. Siso decided to do nothing initially – neither to punish Eliahu, nor to report his actions to anyone.
But there were members of the reconnaissance battalion who were apparently uncomfortable with the cover-up, which is how, at some point, word of the incident in Nablus reached then-brigade commander Col. Shlomi Binder. Yet more time passed and nothing happened; for the battalion it was business as usual. There was no comment from Binder’s office. Indeed not long afterward, he was promoted to brigadier general and is now commander of the 91st Division, a territorial division in the IDF Northern Command, based in the Galilee.
As a result, there were fighters and commanders who tried to raise the subject of the Nablus debacle with senior Golani officers, but the message they got was that the story had to remain within the reconnaissance battalion and that there were no plans to take action against any members of Eliahu’s team.
This silence was maintained by the brigade even when reports of the hate crime at issue reached the media. The reports first claimed that right-wing activists were responsible for the vandalism: that Jewish settlers had come into the area and that the security forces were investigating the incident. In Golani they kept silent. The IDF Spokesman did not respond.
Thus it was that more than two years passed until Haaretz recently contacted the army to get a response to the story. The request was received with surprise: Senior IDF brass, including members of the military prosecution, had no idea that those responsible for the vandalism in the Nablus camp had been fighters in Golani’s elite unit.
Eventually, the IDF Spokesman sufficed with the following response: “At issue is an exceptional and serious incident in which one fighter among a team unnecessarily punctured a number of tires during an operational activity. Immediately after the act, the event was investigated by the battalion commander and it was decided to suspend the fighter from the rest of the operational deployment and to reprimand the team’s commander for not stopping the act. After the incident the gravity of the incident was stressed to the entire battalion and it was explained that such incidents would be dealt with severely in the future.”
However, information obtained by Haaretz indicates that despite the army's response, no soldier has been suspended.