Last week, after the accident in which Itamar Elharar and Ofek Aharon, company commanders in the army’s Egoz commando unit, were shot and killed by a soldier who misidentified them, the IDF Spokesman’s Unit announced that Chief of Staff Aviv Kochavi ordered the establishment of a “team of experts” to investigate their death.
Maj. Gen. (res.) Noam Tibon, an experienced and respected officer, was appointed to head the panel, but even he will struggle to overcome the deep-seated culture surrounding investigations in the Israeli military.
The top brass appears to be defining the boundaries of the probe and where to search for suspects – and where not to search. Parents of service members who have been killed or injured in similar incidents are not alone in believing that this time, too, the accident will not be thoroughly investigated and the responsible parties will not be brought to judgment.
In April 2019 Ron Eliyahu Oved, 18, died when a bus rolled down a hill and hit a tent with him and several other new recruits inside, during a tryout for the Paratroops Brigade. Two months later, an army investigation determined that the accident was the fault of the bus driver, compounded by a lack of rescue equipment. According to the probe, the commanding officers acted properly and could not have prevented the accident.
After the findings were submitted to Kochavi, the IDF Spokesman’s Office said in a statement: “The incident was investigated thoroughly and comprehensively, lessons were learned and some have already been implemented.” Nevertheless, last year Haaretz journalist Uri Misgav revealed that the army’s investigation was sloppy and did not reflect the situation at the base where the accident took place.
The IDF spokesman soon announced that the chief of staff had ordered a new investigation, at the same level within the army, in light of the “new facts” that came to light during the Military Police investigation. “The initial investigation was flawed and did not bring up all the gaps in information,” Kochavi said, adding that the standard in the IDF is to carry out a “thorough, critical, probing and instructive” investigation.
Ron Oved’s father, Moti Oved, was not convinced. “The parents have to know that they won’t get the truth about what happened to their children from the IDF,” he tells Haaretz in reference to the Egoz accident. “You suddenly realize that the ones on whom you pinned all your hopes lied to you. It was like being informed again that Ron was killed.” About his meeting with Kochavi, Moti Oved says: “I asked him, ‘Why didn’t you immediately set up a commission of inquiry, why didn’t you halt training, how much is Ron’s life worth, in your eyes?’ I tried to understand how I sent a boy to a trial period in the army and he didn’t return to me, and in the end it was the bus driver’s fault. (Kochavi) was silent, he didn’t answer me.”
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In 2017 Dvir Kaplansky, a professional gymnast serving in the army, collapsed in her cell in Military Prison 4, where she was serving a brief sentence for possession of marijuana. She died a few days later – due to heart failure, according to the military investigation. Her mother, Adi, who raised tough questions about the medical care her daughter received, realized they would go unanswered.
“After a year and four months of war I received an ‘investigation’ of two or three sentences,” she says. “No explanations, no answers, no responsible parties. The only thing I know is what Dvir’s friends told me in the first two days. The parents of the officers from Egoz need to know that at the end of the investigations, the IDF will give them a story that is little different from what they know today. We took part in their grief, to rebuild the family. They shouldn’t wait to get the truth, it won’t come from the army.”
Osnat Hayut, whose son Eli was seriously injured when he jumped from a moving jeep, observing a tradition in his Maglan reconnaissance unit. “If Eli hadn’t woken up and told his story, we wouldn’t know until today what happened,” she says. “In the army no one told us the truth. The commanders tried to blame the incident on Eli. At first, they showed us an investigation of one and a half pages in which nothing was correct. Only when the media got involved did the investigations unit of the Military Police open a probe, and there was no choice but to investigate everything.” Osnat Hayut’s conclusion is clear: “A unit that investigates itself cannot discover the truth. An external organization must be established for investigations.”
In June 2020 Haaretz published a major investigation of a series of egregious incidents involving a squad in the army’s Golani Brigade led by Lt. Guy Eliahu. In 2018 three members of the squad -- Eshto Tepso, Shiloh Siman Tov and Bar Yakubian – died in an accident on Route 6 that involved safety violations. Here, too, great efforts were made to conceal the truth. In a later incident, near the West Bank city of Nablus, soldiers slashed the tires of Palestinians’ vehicles during a military operation, in the presence of Eliahu – who explained later that he “allowed them to let off steam.” The soldiers lied to investigators, and confessed only when presented with documentation of their actions.
The Haaretz investigation also revealed that Eliahu’s squad entered Syria without permission and raided a building where a few Syrians were, despite being in no danger. When shots were fired from inside, the soldiers went in and killed two or three people.
The IDF’s first investigation determined that the accident on Highway 6 was the fault of the driver of the truck that hit the soldiers. The tire-slashing incident was also covered up, and the commanders made do with giving participants a “stern talking-to.” Regarding the rogue incursion into Syria, the IDF simply said it never happened.
The details that came to light during the trial of the truck driver, who was charged with reckless manslaughter in the deaths of the three soldiers, show what happened afterward in the unit. The report of the investigation led by the brigade commander at the time, Col. Shlomi Binder, was just four pages long. The battalion commander, Lt. Col. Shimon Siso, claimed that he lost the investigation that he conducted, and it was found only after the court demanded that it be located.
A team headed by Col. Yair Nathans and appointed by then-chief of Staff Gadi Eisenkot didn’t even take statements from people who were involved in the accident before determining that “no evidence was found to support a criminal procedure against the military figure whatsoever.” No measures were taken against anyone involved. Since then, Binder was promoted to the rank of brigadier general and appointed commander of a formation. Eliahu, who tried to cover up the incidents, was sentenced to 21 days in prison after being convicted of submitting a forged document to the court in connection with the incidents, and was also promoted: His current assignment is as a safety officer.
This wasn’t the only time the families of soldiers killed or injured in accidents have had to see the commanders who were responsible moving up the military ladder unimpeded, in some cases before the investigation is completed. Brig. Gen. Yaakov Dolf was head of the Golani Brigade when Ron Oved was killed. A few months earlier, Evyatar Yosefi, a soldier in Golani’s patrol battalion, died during a flash flood in the Hilazon Stream.
An investigative report by Haaretz pointed to a series of flaws that preceded the drowning, and a far-reaching cover-up that began immediately after it – and in which Dolf himself participated. Nevertheless, he was later promoted – to military secretary to the defense minister – as were other officers involved in the incident. “We see the commanders advancing and developing careers, while we are still dealing with the ruins,” says bereaved mother Adi Kaplansky.
A high-ranking officer who was reprimanded for his part in a training accident provides a different perspective: “I didn’t have a chance to move from the site of the incident, and I hear that some of the senior officers didn’t arrive because they’re getting legal advice. An investigation starts, the incident gets headlines and everyone’s looking for someone’s head as quickly as possible. You immediately understand that the army is looking for culprits among the more junior officers, since a senior officer could testify about problems throughout the entire system. No one says it openly, but the junior commanders understand on their own. The senior officer who investigated the incident knows the senior commanders, he was their commanding officer, or they were his.”
The most junior officer involved in the incident in Syria was dismissed from the IDF as a result. “In an incident like that, as a young officer, you do exactly as you’ve been taught, you take responsibility and say, ‘It’s on me,’” he relates, describing his own situation at the time. He spoke with Haaretz on condition of anonymity. “Suddenly the highest-ranking officers, who also are slated to be questioned, sit across from you and interrogate you, they hear your version and what you intend to say under questioning. The feeling is that they’re head-hunting, and obviously it won’t be their head. When you and your fellow soldiers are questioned first and it goes on for hours, and when the brigade commander and the battalion commander are questioned weeks later for 10 minutes, it’s pretty clear who the arrows are aimed at.”
He is certain that the same thing will happen in the latest accident. “Those commissions don’t search on the macro level, for what has to be fixed in the IDF. They go for the micro level, looking for heads, that’s why they were appointed. To see officers who are much more responsible than you were for a disaster being promoted is hard, but it’s not going to change.”
The IDF responded: “The command investigations in the IDF, and in particular investigations of incidents in which a soldier is injured, are conducted in a thorough manner, with the goal of understanding the circumstances of the incidents and especially to draw conclusions from the event and learn lessons for the future. The IDF is committed to the welfare of its service members, and in light of the principle that ‘human life is precious’ it carried out probing investigations that are presented to the IDF’s senior officers and when appropriate also to the chief of staff, and implements the findings of these investigations when necessary. The IDF’s chief concern is support for bereaved families and the families of injured soldiers, and as part of that also the thorough and comprehensive investigation of every incident. Due to the thorough and comprehensive nature of the investigation of each incident, there are cases in which the investigation continues for a long time before final conclusions are submitted. As evidence of the assimilation of the lessons learned from investigations, it can be seen that in the past decade there has been a decrease in the number of casualties in the IDF, and there is a relatively small number of casualties in training accidents.”