Major General Yitzhak Brik – a decorated combat officer known for his conscientiousness and integrity – served as the military ombudsman. In this position, he was also made aware of operational failures, particularly in the ground forces. Which led him to conduct an in-depth investigation of what is happening in the army. The details of his report, which ought to have shaken the rafters, were met with indifference.
Most military analysts ignored the findings or, at best, claimed that Brik was “exaggerating.” And some accused him – how typical for those who ignore the truth – of exceeding his authority. But what about the facts? These were only addressed minimally, if at all. As they would have it, the ombudsman should only deal with complaints about service conditions.
The incident that occurred this week in Tze’elim, in which officers who “took the law into their own hands” were nearly tried, is one bit of evidence, out of hundreds, of the mentality that prevails in the army, especially among a good portion of the senior officers. While preparing a training exercise for a reserve unit, the group of officers spotted some Bedouins trying to plunder military equipment. Contrary to the forbearance their cohorts had shown for decades, the natural reflex they felt was shame, and the need to prevent a crime. A chase ensued in which the officers’ jeep ended up in the center of a Bedouin village, where locals besieged the vehicle and threatened to harm the occupants. According to the media, the incident ended “without injury or loss of life.”
Thankfully, it did indeed conclude without physical casualties. But the main damage that has been occurring for generations at Tze’elim is not bodily harm but harm to the soul. The soul of the IDF.
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First, a senior officer accused the officers of dereliction of duty, raising the possibility they would be court-martialed. For in the last decades, the “IDF spirit” – often when it comes to combat operations too – is one of meekness and restraint. It took a public uproar to spur the IDF spokesman to issue a statement of reassurance. Nonetheless, the “operational lesson” was: dealing with looters, even at an IDF facility, is a job for the police. And the effectiveness of the police in the Negev, particularly when it comes to the Bedouins, is weak to nonexistent in regard to thefts, sanitation laws, planning and construction, polygamy and family “honor killings.” State lands, water sources and other infrastructure are essentially without protection. Think about it: Even though there are clear photos of the rioters around the jeep, no one was arrested.
The “real (combat) spirit,” some tell me, can be seen in the air force operations against Iran’s entrenchment in Syria, and the secret operations by the elite commando units. But, at best, this argument is a distraction. It does not reflect the spirit in the infantry, armored, engineering and artillery units. These units are engineered – doctrinally and practically – to act on the basis of the strategy of restraint that the IDF has embraced since the First Lebanon War. The failures of the ground army in operations against Hamas in the south and the fiasco in the Second Lebanon War prove just how right Brik is. Images of military vehicles fleeing from rock-throwers, Molotov cocktails and even from live fire flash before our eyes with a sickening and humiliating frequency. This is not the way an army that is supposed to “strive to engage” acts.
This week Benjamin Netanyahu pledged to extend Israeli sovereignty (we’re waiting) to the Jordan Valley and a number of settlements. How about starting instead with a less controversial act: extending Israeli law and enforcement – i.e., sovereignty – to the Negev?