Israel’s military ombudsman released his annual report for 2018 on Tuesday, documenting thousands of complaints by soldiers of improper treatment by their commanders, including racist or disparaging remarks.
The report was presented to Prime Minister and Defense Minister Benjamin Netanyahu 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 and his predecessor, Maj. Gen. (res.) Yitzhak Brick, who completed his 10-year term earlier this year.
Over the course of 2018, the ombudsman’s office received 6,749 complaints from Israeli troops or their parents, a slight decrease from the previous year, in which just over 7,000 complaints were filed. Of those, some 61 percent were found to be legitimate, justified issues. The others were found to be false or trivial.
The document, based on written complaints from soldiers, interviews and reviews of internal military reports, came to many of the same conclusions as did the ombudsman’s office’s 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.
“The worst of [these incidents in which services were denied] were cases in which commanders blocked the medical rights for soldiers, which could cause them physical or mental harm,” Dahan wrote.
In one such case, a commander kept his soldier from meeting a mental health professional until he filled out a form that was not actually required and then released the soldier too late, making the serviceman miss the appointment.
The IDF responded to the document, saying it welcomed the criticism and was working to address the issues identified in it.
“In the past decade, internal review and control mechanisms have been working in the IDF with the goal of improving a wide variety of issues. The IDF appreciates all reviews and criticism that is meant to improve the organization and is dedicated to learning from the findings in order to learn lessons and fix whatever needs to be fixed,” the army said in a statement.
The ombudsman also received a number of complaints from soldiers from minority groups, notably Ethiopians, whose commanders spoke to them in a “hurtful and racist manner,” though it acknowledged that the number of cases such as these has gone down in recent years.
In one incident, a commander told his Ethiopian soldiers before the entire squad that they should “smile so that we can see you in the dark.”
In that cases and others, the commanders in question were punished or otherwise censured by their superiors for their inappropriate remarks.
Dahan noted that while complaints of racism have decreased, there has not been a drop in overall allegations of disparaging remarks by commanders.
According to the acting ombudsman, this “verbal violence” and other forms of inappropriate behavior are taking place on social media, particularly on the popular WhatsApp chat application.
In one case, a soldier sent his commander a sick note from his doctor on WhatsApp. The commander forwarded a copy of the medical document to the soldier’s entire unit, prompting his comrades to ridicule the serviceman and accuse him of faking illness to get out of kitchen duty.
The commander was found guilty in a disciplinary hearing of violating the soldier’s privacy by sharing the sensitive medical document.
Dahan also documented a number of cases of soldiers being denied the vacation days they are entitled to by military protocol.
The IDF in response acknowledged the problem and said it was connected to a failure to adequately inform all parties of a 2016 change to the rules, which gave soldiers 18 vacation days instead of 15.
“The number of vacation days for conscripted soldiers went up. Commanders and human resources personnel are responsible for informing soldiers about the matter and ensure that they are making use of their vacation days,” the army said.
Dahan’s report marked a return to the type of document formerly produced by the office of the ombudsman, formally known as the soldiers’ complaints officer, after his predecessor Brick used his platform to warn against failures and issues in the IDF’s ground forces.
In his final year in the role, Brick effectively waged a one-man war against the military, accusing it of being woefully unprepared for war and duping the country’s political leaders into thinking it was. Military officials publicly rejected his allegations, but nevertheless worked to address many of the lacunae identified by the ombudsman, a former tank commander.