The head of the army’s Southern Command reprimanded the commander of the Givati Brigade on Friday, marking his permanent record for his handling of a sexual assault case and several other instances of improper conduct.
The army coated the announcement in praise, saying that Chief of the General Staff, Lt. Gen. Benny Gantz, to whom the report was presented, found the brigade commander’s conduct to have been “professional, moral and sharp” and that there was no evidence indicating that Col. Ofer Winter or his subordinates “hid” information or knowingly presented a fallacious picture of events.
Nonetheless, Maj. Gen. Shlomo (Sami) Turgeman, the head of the Southern Command, gave Winter a demerit for his failure to follow “the protocol in matters of this sort,” an IDF spokesperson wrote in a statement.
Gantz, who met with Winter personally during the investigation and cited his rich combat record, called for “refreshing and sharpening” the protocol.
The events in question took place within the Tzabar Battalion of the Givati Brigade. In early December, the Israel Broadcasting Authority’s Carmela Menashe first reported the story, airing a deeply troubling video with two infantrymen who said that they were each, independently, harassed and sexually assaulted by their direct commanding officer.
One of the soldiers, identified as A, said he was in shock and “just froze” when the officer assaulted him (Hebrew interview here).
“He was a character that you look up to like a God,” he said.
Three months later, he learned that the same sort of thing had happened to his platoon mate, who also was identified as A.
The soldiers, after deliberation, came forward to the company commander, who expressed shock and said the matter would be taken care of. The company commander pushed the matter up the chain of command, to the battalion commander. “He listened but didn’t really help us,” the blond-haired A said.
In fact, Lt. Col. Liran Hajbi, the commander of the Tsabar Battalion, told the soldiers that the officer would be removed from the army. Col. Winter made a similar pledge, telling the soldiers “I solved the problem for you.”
Instead, the two were split up and sent to different battalions and the officer remained within the brigade. The deputy company commander allegedly told the soldiers, both of whom were considered distinguished soldiers, that they “shamed him” and that “all [they had done] was cause trouble.”
The soldiers contemplated suicide. While pulling guard duty opposite Shejaiya after Operation Protective Edge, in an army base near Kibbutz Nahal Oz, they discussed slipping into the Gaza Strip and ending their lives that way. “Maybe we would just disappear, disappear from this world,” they said.
Hajbi, the battalion commander, was also embroiled in a case of conduct unbecoming an officer in his relations with a female subordinate and several other unspecified cases of misconduct, including sexual harassment.
He was relieved of his command and dismissed last week.
Gantz and Turjeman, however, according to the army’s statement, “expressed their full faith in the Givati Brigadae and its commander, Col. Ofer Winter.”