Gantz backs IDF chief in outcry over light penalties for recent deadly incidents

Commenting on death of elderly Palestinian man who was left to die at a construction site by soldiers, Kohavi says threat of prosecution shouldn’t be the only reason to be humane

Judah Ari Gross is The Times of Israel's religions and Diaspora affairs correspondent.

IDF chief Aviv Kohavi speaks during a ceremony for graduates of the Israeli Air Force's pilot course, at the Hatzerim airbase in southern Israel, on December 22, 2021. (Israel Defense Forces)
IDF chief Aviv Kohavi speaks during a ceremony for graduates of the Israeli Air Force's pilot course, at the Hatzerim airbase in southern Israel, on December 22, 2021. (Israel Defense Forces)

Defense Minister Benny Gantz came out in support of IDF Chief of Staff Aviv Kohavi on Sunday, in response to recent outcries over light punishments meted out to military men recently for deadly incidents.

Criticism has centered specifically on the deaths of two officers in a friendly fire incident last month and the death of an elderly Palestinian man who suffered heart failure after he was bound and blindfolded by soldiers.

“We must investigate all irregularities and correct them and educate fearlessly,” Gantz said. “Indeed, punishment is needed for those who do not meet our norms and rules — but punishment is not the only aspect.

“No less important is learning lessons and sometimes also introspection by the high command ranks, in terms of missions and the way forces are trained,” he said.

The defense minister made his remarks at a swearing-in ceremony for the incoming head of the military’s court of appeals, its equivalent to a supreme court — Maj. Gen. Orli Markman, the first woman to hold the position.

In his speech at the same event, Kohavi said the fear of criminal prosecution should not be the only reason why soldiers refrain from actions like those that led to the death of the 78-year-old Palestinian man, Omar As’ad, last month. As’ad was left on the ground unconscious at a construction site in the middle of the night in mid-January after he refused to identify himself at a random checkpoint that the soldiers had set up in his village of Jiljilya in the central West Bank.

Defense Minister Benny Gantz leads a faction meeting at the Knesset on January 31, 2022 (Yonatan Sindel/ Flash90)

“You don’t need a law to tell you not to leave an 80-year-old man in the cold during an operational activity, and it doesn’t matter if the man is 80 or 18. You need discretion, values and humanity, and that doesn’t require a law,” Kohavi said.

“The responsibility for the Israel Defense Forces’ norms and values belong to our commanders and all the way down to the last soldier, and of course from the chain of command. We demand that our commanders lead with these values without needing the signposts of a court system. Of course, we need [a court system], but the responsibility for the norms and values of the Israel Defense Forces is ours, the commanders,” he added.

Kohavi has faced considerable criticism for the military’s handling of both As’ad’s death and the deadly friendly fire incident in the elite Egoz Unit, which was found to have been the result of a troubling organizational culture in the outfit. In both cases, relatively light disciplinary action was taken against the officers involved and the commanders above them, despite harsh findings by investigators. Criminal probes are ongoing in both cases to determine if charges would be filed against those involved.

Defense Minister Benny Gantz speaks at a swearing-in ceremony for the incoming head of the military’s court of appeals at the President’s Residence in Jerusalem on February 13, 2022. (Ariel Hermoni/Defense Ministry)

In his speech, Gantz referred to both incidents, as well as recent sexual assault cases within the military, as something the IDF must reckon with and ensure does not repeat.

“There are ongoing efforts to instill these norms and to make wide-scale corrections on all fronts, which are being led by the chief of staff and the senior command in light of these incidents — with no connection to the legal aspects,” the defense minister said.

Omar As’ad (Courtesy)

Military officials have repeatedly referred to As’ad’s death on January 12 as having been the result of an “ethical failure” by the soldiers involved, who tackled him to the ground, zip-tied his hands together, briefly gagged him, blindfolded him, and left him on the ground at a construction site after he refused to identify himself at an impromptu checkpoint.

A bit under an hour later, the soldiers removed the zip-ties, but left him on the ground unconscious at the unfinished building in the middle of the night in near-freezing temperatures. Two junior officers were removed from their positions over As’ad’s death and the head of the unit, the Netzah Yehuda Battalion, was formally censured, but no other disciplinary actions were taken.

In the friendly fire incident in the Egoz Unit, investigators determined that the soldiers involved set out on two separate, uncoordinated patrols to find a thief who had stolen night vision equipment from their unit the night before. Instead, the two patrols found each other and opened fire on one another. Two officers, Maj. Ofek Aharon, 28, and Maj. Itamar Elharar, 26, were killed in the exchange.

Probes determined that the unit had a culture of failure to report incidents and to properly investigate what is reported and that officers in the unit believed themselves to be above the rules they set for their soldiers. Here too, relatively few and limited punishments were handed out: the deputy commander of the Egoz Unit was removed from his position, as were the other officers directly involved in the friendly fire exchange. The head of the unit was left in his position, though a planned promotion was blocked, while the commander of the brigade that contains the Egoz Unit was not reprimanded in any way.

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