IDF ombudsman finds fewer complaints by troops but more reported abuse

IDF ombudsman finds fewer complaints by troops but more reported abuse

In annual report, Defense Ministry official notes multiple cases of racist slurs used against troops by commanders, poor record-keeping, but improvements in the pre-draft process

Judah Ari Gross is The Times of Israel's military correspondent.

Illustrative. Soldiers of the Bardales Battalion listen to their commander during a training exercise in southern Israel, on July 13, 2016. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)
Illustrative. Soldiers of the Bardales Battalion listen to their commander during a training exercise in southern Israel, on July 13, 2016. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

Israel’s military ombudsman’s office said Wednesday that it had received fewer complaints from soldiers than a year earlier, but had found an uptick in the severity of claims by troops of poor and abusive treatment by their commanders.

The ombudsman’s annual report included thousands of complaints from conscripts and career soldiers, including allegations of rampant bureaucratic inefficiencies.

The report was presented to Defense Minister Naftali Bennett and to the Knesset’s powerful Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, as well as senior officers in the Israel Defense Forces.

The document was prepared by acting ombudsman Brig. Gen. (res.) Eitan Dahan, known formally as the chief complaints officers, who works out of the Defense Ministry.

Over the course of 2019, the ombudsman’s office received 6,114 complaints from Israeli troops or their parents, a 10 percent drop from the previous year. Dahan’s office reviewed each of the cases, finding that the majority of them — 59 percent — were legitimate, while the rest were found to be false or trivial.

This document is prepared each year, based on written complaints from soldiers, interviews and reviews of internal military reports, in order to identify both worrying and positive trends within the IDF.

Acting IDF ombudsman Brig. Gen. (res.) Eitan Dahan holds his annual report in February 2020. (Tal Oz/Defense Ministry)

Though there was a drop in the overall number of complaints, the ombudsman found an increase in the number and severity of reports of verbal and physical abuse by commanders against their troops, including cases of officers striking or fighting with soldiers and racist comments being directed toward soldiers from the Ethiopian community.

In one case noted in the report, a soldier returned to his base following a religious fast day — when it is also generally frowned upon to shave — with a small amount of stubble. His deputy company commander took out a folding knife and held it up to the soldier’s neck, while running his hand over the soldier’s unshaven cheek. The officer later said he had been joking and didn’t intend to harm the soldier.

The commander of the battalion censured the deputy company commander and spoke to soldiers in the unit about the incident, said Dahan.

In another case, a non-commissioned officer told a soldier from the Ethiopian community that she wasn’t Jewish.

A soldier rests during training exercises on Saturday. (photo credit: Edi Israel/Flash90)
Illustrative: An IDF soldier rests during training exercises. (photo credit: Edi Israel/Flash90)

“[Ehtiopian Jews] aren’t Jews, you’re gentiles, and you act worse than the Arabs,” the soldier recalled the NCO saying, referring to a series of protests held by members of the Ethiopian community in response to police violence.

This year’s document also included many of the conclusions that appeared in reports from previous years: commanders knowingly or unknowingly failing to provide the services to their soldiers required by military protocol; commanders speaking unprofessionally or hurtfully to their subordinates, sometimes in public; medical personnel failing to keep up with the needs of the soldiers in their care; and general bureaucratic mismanagement.

Dahan noted that there was a general issue of poor record-keeping throughout the military, which he said “may indicate a problematic organizational culture and in some cases insufficient professionalism.”

The ombudsman also warned that there were a disproportionate number of complaints from career soldiers, which he said should serve as a “red flag” for the IDF top brass, indicating some kind of fundamental problem in the military.

“I have no doubt that when a career soldier files a complaint, there is in that complaint a much larger matter than what is visible, an issue of a relationship with his commanders that is not at its best, or a loss of faith in the organizations that are meant to take care of the individual,” he wrote in the report.

It is not clear what drove Dahan to highlight this issue with career military personnel this year, as complaints from them were at the same level in 2019 as in the year before — approximately 12 percent of all complaints.

On a positive note, Dahan said the military’s efforts to improve its service to people prior to their enlistment were paying off, though he said there is still a way to go.

The military responded to the document, saying it welcomed the criticism and was working to address the issues identified in it.

“The IDF must study from the findings, learn lessons from them and make the necessary corrections as quickly as possible,” the army said in a statement.

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