Unlearned Lessons

Why was the Peled Report, which probed the Har Dov kidnappings, not passed on to commanders who might have used it to prevent future abductions of soldiers?

Chief of Staff Dan Halutz brought another wave of public criticism upon himself this week, as well as demagogic mustache-twitching on the part of Defense Minister Amir Peretz, when he decided, during a discussion of assignments for brigadier generals, that the commanders of all the divisions who fought in Lebanon would remain in the standing army.

Next year there will be a rotation of major generals: the deputy chief of staff, the commander of the Ground Forces, the chief of Central Command, the chief of the Home Front Command, the chief of the Human Resources Division and the president of the military court of appeals. Among them there will be two or three new major generals. The assignments that were publicized this week are the screws that keep the system in place: the brigadier generals who run General Staff activity on a daily basis, and the commanders of the four most important divisions. Manning them is crucial for achieving stability and continuity, renewing the fighting and rehabilitating the system that has been undermined.

The division commanders, whose names were of interest to only few among the public as recently as four months ago, are now being pilloried in the pages of the newspapers. These commanders are for the most part operation contractors, with minimal control over the resources at their disposal. They are allotted the input of a tactical echelon, and in times of crisis are expected to produce strategic output. They are victims of what Halutz hates: responsibility without authority. They are excluded by the branches of the General Staff and by the intelligence community. The Shamgar Commission discovered, when it investigated the massacre in the Cave of the Patriarchs in Hebron (where in March 1994 a Jewish settler, Baruch Goldstein, killed 29 and wounded 150 Muslim worshipers) that the Shin Bet security services had shared its information about problematic settlers only with the General Staff and the chief of Central Command, but not with the division commander, Shaul Mofaz. That is exactly what Military Intelligence did to Gal Hirsch in Lebanon.

Had the four "Lebanese" division commanders been students, it could have been said of them after the discussion of assignments that two of them (Erez Zuckerman and Eyal Eisenberg) had to take another exam at a later date, a third (Guy Tzur) was transferred to another department more suited to his abilities, and only one, Hirsch, had accumulated enough credits to go on for his next degree. When all the slander, gossip, ignorance and evil had dissipated, Hirsch's commanders in the General Staff admitted that his division had prepared well for the abduction scenario, for preventing it and for the operations to follow if the abduction was not prevented. The division consistently and creatively reviewed its special version of the Magen Haaretz (Defender of the Land) plan, as its part in a multi-divisional plan of the Northern Command. It practiced the plan often, most recently in June in the Lower Galilee with Nazareth in the role of Bint Jbail. Finally, it implemented the plan in continuous fighting of a month and more, with hasty and haphazard changes of assignment imposed from above, and with the sharp elbows of his colleagues in Hirsch's ribs. The de facto recognition of the injustice caused him was offset by Halutz's decision to promote one of Hirsch's greatest enemies, Brigadier General Noam Tibon, to head the Judea and Samaria Division, in spite of the reservations expressed during the discussion.

A forgotten report

A few weeks after the October 7, 2000 kidnap of three Israeli soldiers at Har Dov, then-prime minister and defense minister Ehud Barak telephoned Major General (res.) Yossi Peled, a strict officer who enforced discipline (as head of Northern Command, he refused to neglect intercom checks with all the outposts, and forced commanders to have all the tank crews on alert to be fully awake at dawn. Barak asked Peled to investigate how and why three IDF soldiers had been kidnapped at Har Dov in the middle of the day. He agreed, on condition that the appointment was acceptable to chief of staff Mofaz as well, and went out to investigate.

About a month later, when the report was submitted and presented to the public in a softened version, it turned out that Peled had made do with a description of the situation. He left the personal conclusions to Mofaz, who decided to sacrifice the commander of the Hermon Brigade, Colonel Yoeli Orr, and the commander of the Golan Division, Brigadier General Zvi Gendelman. The head of Northern Command, Gabi Ashkenazi, emerged without a scratch. About a year later he was appointed deputy of the chief of staff-designate, Moshe Ya'alon.

Ashkenazi, who was the commander of the Golani Brigade and an Operations Division officer with Peled, was and is still considered by Peled to be one of the best officers; but in the Har Dov affair Peled was disappointed by his functioning in the field and his testimony during the investigation. Ashkenazi, who had already identified as a weak point the border gate that became the site of the abduction, erred in marking the sector border between the two divisions, Gendelman's 36th Division and Moshe Kaplinsky's 91st Division, exactly at that spot - rather than dozens or hundreds of meters away. The 36th Division, which was not involved in the fighting in Lebanon until the withdrawal, was also shortchanged by the Northern Command when it came to receiving intelligence warnings.

Under those circumstances, Peled told his associates, had he been head of the command, he would have done what he did after the "Night of the Gliders" in November 1987. At the time Peled was astonished by the attack on him in the media and the Knesset, closeted himself with then-defense minister Yitzhak Rabin, accepted responsibility and offered to resign. Rabin rejected his offer, and Peled did not insist. It is his belief that this is the way a commander should behave in such a situation, taking the risk that his superior might accept his resignation.

To those involved in the affair, their personal fate was of particular importance. The IDF as an organization is supposed to use the diagnosis of previous mishaps to prevent their recurrence. It turns out that this was not done with the Peled report. It was shelved and was not made available to those who could have made use of it - the head of Northern Command and the commanders of the 36th and 91st Divisions. Negligence, or perhaps someone at the top was concealing his part in the responsibility for the Har Dov abduction, even at the price of undermining preparations for preventing the next kidnapping.

Yoeli Orr, the brigade commander whose promotion was aborted, repeatedly got up at meetings of senior officers to warn that the lessons of Har Dov had not been learned, but did not respond to the pleas of the new generation in the north to specify and explain. The answer was to be found in the Peled report - but the report was not found.

The concealment of the report took place in two stages. First, shortly after its completion it was sent to a limited distribution list. Later, when officers who were of lower rank and in other sectors during the abduction - and therefore were not included on that distribution list - were promoted to assignments in the north, the report was not sent to them for perusal. When a senior officer in Northern Command did take an interest in it, about a month before the kidnapping on July 12 of this year, they had trouble finding it (since then a rare copy has been discovered).

The height of absurdity was reached in the General Staff when they turned to Yossi Peled and wondered if by chance he could rummage among his papers and find a lost booklet to lend them. The surprised Peled, who has been a civilian for the past 15 years, replied that he does not keep military documents.

And these are the officers who served as heads of Northern Command after the abduction: Benny Gantz and Udi Adam. Division commanders: of the 36th, Avi Mizrahi and Gershon Hacohen, both of whom have been promoted since then to the rank of major general, and Brigadier General Eli Reiter. Division commanders: of the 91st, Meir Kalifi (now a major general) and Brigadier Generals Yair Golan and Gal Hirsch.

This week the issue of the Peled report was checked out with most of them. The reply is astonishing: They did not receive it, they did not see it, with the exception of Gantz, who was appointed a corps commander in the Northern Command about half a year after the completion of the Peled report, and head of Northern Command a few months later. Kalifi did not need the report: He was a member of the Peled committee.

Who had an interest in concealing the Peled report? Who was ashamed of what was said in it? Who wanted Gendelman - who was not promoted to the rank of major general as promised, and was appointed military attache in London - to be remembered as the most senior officer bearing responsibility for the Har Dov affair? An officer who was very familiar with work habits in Mofaz's office during his terms as chief of staff and as defense minister said this week that there was no maliciousness here, just routine.

The Peled report was simply forgotten. They did not think - not during the terms of Mofaz and his deputy Ya'alon, not during the terms of Ya'alon as chief of staff and Ashkenazi as his deputy, and later of Halutz as deputy and as chief of staff - of placing the report into the file for overlapping assignments between division commanders and between heads of Northern Command.

Even if this innocent explanation is correct, it is of no comfort. At best, it means that the IDF pretended in vain to be a "learning organization," with an institutional memory that is handed down from one generation to the next, so that it will not be necessary to pay tuition in blood again. Lessons that could have helped the top commanders in the north to analyze the previous abduction in order to prevent the next one were not placed at their disposal. And not only in the north. The Peled report, had it been more widely distributed, might have also helped the head of Southern Command, Yoav Galant, and the previous commander of the Gaza Division, Brigadier General Aviv Kochavi, to prevent the kidnapping of Gilad Shalit from the tank in the Kerem Shalom outpost.