Military Advocate General Is Swept Up in Populism Over Gaza War

The military advocate general is undermining the most basic values by which generations of combat soldiers have been educated.

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Palestinians look for their belongings in the rubble of houses destroyed in an Israeli strike, Rafah, southern Gaza Strip, August 2, 2014
Palestinians look for their belongings in the rubble of houses destroyed in an Israeli strike, Rafah, southern Gaza Strip, August 2, 2014Credit: AP

The Israel Defense Forces probe into the events of “Black Friday,” the August 1 cease-fire in Operation Protective Edge, is at its height. Nevertheless, the Military Advocate General, Maj. Gen. Danny Efroni, has instructed the Military Police to investigate the conduct of Givati Brigade soldiers in Rafah on that day.

The question is: How does the MAG, who is responsible only for probing criminal aspects, have information that Givati forces ostensibly committed such offenses? After all, the only information available to him stems from the investigation itself. Is he joining the long-running persecution campaign against Givati and its commander, Col. Ofer Winter?

As will be recalled, about an hour after the cease-fire went into effect, a Hamas force ambushed the command team of Sayeret Givati, the brigade’s elite special-operations force, killing three members and seizing the body of one of them, Lt. Hadar Goldin.

Three Givati soldiers pursued the abductors into a tunnel and large numbers of forces, including air support and armored, artillery and special forces units, were called in to isolate the area and to recover Goldin’s body. The news media (but not the IDF) termed the operation an employment of the “Hannibal Directive,” in which extreme measures are authorized in order to prevent the capture of Israeli soldiers in combat. According to Palestinian claims, around 120 people were killed in the operation.

Within the army, opposition to the investigation is strong: Commanders, not the Military Police, investigate combat actions. The high command also opposes the probe, but does not dare invoke its authority to keep the soldiers out of the interrogation rooms.

The weakness in the General Staff — and not only in this matter — is worrisome, as is the MAG’s fervor: Why is he allowing himself to join the crusade against Winter and conducting a criminal investigation before the high command’s probe has been completed? If the latter finds that soldiers and officers have committed criminal offenses, the findings will be delivered into his care, as is customary.

Although no rapes were committed and there were only a few looting incidents, after Operation Cast Lead (2008-09) some 600 combat soldiers were questioned by the Military Police. These soldiers, who had just risked their lives on behalf of the nation, spoke of a humiliating inquiry and of the Military Police officers’ total lack of understanding of the fundamental tests combat soldiers face on the battlefield. This scene is about to repeat itself, perhaps — as a result of the MAG’s having been swept up in populism after the political and media “contract” put out against Givati — to an even greater extent.

Efroni can be so defiant because today’s top brass lacks courageous leadership and natural authority. Anyone who disagrees with this statement should analyze the very unsatisfactory outcome of military actions and their associated elements (for example, the conduct of the MAG) since the 2006 Second Lebanon War. After Operation Cast Lead, Maj. Gen. (ret.) Uzi Dayan, who in his 36 years as a commander never allowed the Military Police to question soldiers who had taken part in an operation he commanded, said: “Had I permitted it, I would have been unable to look my subordinates in the eye and continue to command that unit.”

In the fighting to extract Goldin, as noted, large and varied forces were used. The highest powers — the Givati Brigade commander did not have the authority — called them in (as was necessary and justified). This natural decision by the senior military command illustrated the best tradition of the IDF, the dictate not to abandon a soldier in the battlefield. The MAG, who turned this principle-inspired combat into an event requiring a criminal investigation — only against Givati! — undermines the most basic values by which generations of combat soldiers have been educated.

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