Ombudsman finds IDF responded poorly to coronavirus, but is improving

In annual report, Defense Ministry official also notes ongoing issues of abuse and negligence in the military

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

Israeli soldiers wearing protective face masks walk on Jaffa Street in Jerusalem on June 23, 2020. (Nati Shohat/Flash90)
Israeli soldiers wearing protective face masks walk on Jaffa Street in Jerusalem on June 23, 2020. (Nati Shohat/Flash90)

The military ombudsman released his annual report of soldiers’ complaints on Wednesday, detailing the troops’ claims of abuse, negligence and incompetence by commanders toward their subordinates in 2020, including many cases related to the Israel Defense Forces’ response to the coronavirus pandemic.

According to his office, acting ombudsman Brig. Gen. (res.) Eitan Dahan, known formally as the chief complaints officers in the Defense Ministry, received 5,706 complaints from troops or their parents over the course of 2020, a slight decrease from the previous year, when over 6,000 were submitted. Dahan’s office reviewed each of the cases, finding that the majority of the complaints — 61 percent — were legitimate, while the rest were found to be false or trivial.

Dahan’s report was presented to Defense Minister Benny Gantz, the Knesset’s Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, and senior officers in the Israel Defense Forces. It was likely the final report to be issued by Dahan, who has served as acting ombudsman since 2018, after Gantz nominated Brig. Gen. (res) Rachel Tevet-Wiesel to replace him in the role on a permanent basis. Tevet-Wiesel has yet to be formally approved by the Knesset.

The ombudsman’s report is prepared each year, based on written complaints, which are then investigated with interviews and reviews of internal military reports, in order to identify both worrying and positive trends within the IDF.

As they do every year, the complaints dealt with cases of physical and verbal abuse, soldiers failing to receive proper medical care, bureaucratic inefficiencies and poor conditions. This past year, however, also included a section dedicated to the military’s response to the coronavirus.

The acting IDF ombudsman, Brig. Gen. (res.) Eitan Dahan, left, gives Defense Minister Benny Gantz his annual report of soldiers’ official complaints for 2020 in February 2021. (Ariel Hermoni/Defense Ministry)

“When IDF soldiers enlist, we can’t promise them that their lives won’t be in danger or that their service will interest them. But we must promise them fair treatment and proper medical care. I am sure that the IDF can learn a lot from this report, and I praise the improvements that have been made on the issue of the medical care for soldiers in terms of the coronavirus,” Gantz said.

Though Dahan recognized the difficulty in dealing with a pandemic, he said there were many cases of IDF commanders failing to provide troops with the information and care necessary to keep them safe and the military functioning properly.

“Over the past year, I determined that alongside impressive and dynamic preparation that the IDF displayed in dealing with the many changes that this period brought with it, gaps arose in managing the medical and other conditions: from gaps in sending messages and orders to the field, to commanders’ lacking treatment of outbreak sites, to delays in providing military care to soldiers who were suspected of being sick, or needing quarantine or to be distanced from their units, to failing to carry out necessary orders and denying the economic and social rights of servicemembers,” Dahan wrote.

The report documented cases demonstrating those issues, including one in which a soldier who was in a high-risk group for the disease and was meant to be sent home was not informed of that fact for several weeks.

Dahan said he and his staff also received multiple complaints from soldiers who were put into quarantine on their bases under poor living conditions or in ways that made infections more — rather than less — likely.

Some troops also had difficulty getting tested for coronavirus, even when displaying symptoms of the disease, or were given conflicting orders regarding home quarantine.

Israeli troops operate a laboratory to test soldiers for the coronavirus on March 23, 2020. (Israel Defense Forces)

In a statement, the military acknowledged the issues, saying it was improving its response.

“The coronavirus crisis, which the entire world is dealing with, brought with it new difficulties and challenges for the IDF. The IDF is constantly learning and developing in order to provide appropriate solutions for the entire population of service members,” the military said.

Negligence, abuse

Dahan’s report also focused on issues in the military in general, most of which continue year after year. Those include verbal and physical abuse, as well as delayed or poor medical care not related to the COVID-19 crisis.

“Sometimes soldiers were subjected to delayed access or were denied access to a doctor or mental health professionals. Soldiers were asked to perform certain actions despite receiving a medical exemption or were required to return to their units against the recommendations of their doctor,” Dahan wrote.

In one case of abuse, the commanders of one soldier repeatedly called him a “crybaby” and a “pussy” in front of his comrades when he was experiencing pain.

When he received permission to remain in his room to rest, his commanders refused to allow other soldiers to bring him food. When he was hospitalized for his pain, his commanders initially ignored him, not checking how he was, and when they did visit, they violated his privacy by reading and photographing medical documents next to his bed.

In that case, the ombudsman had censures put into the commanders’ personal files and asked the battalion and brigade commanders to institute changes to prevent such situations in the future, according to the report.

In another case of attempted abuse, a commander threw a hammer at one of his subordinates because the soldier was smoking a cigarette, which annoyed the officer. The hammer missed the servicemember, landing on the ground.

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

In a different case, a soldier and his commander were having an argument and began throwing things at each other. The commander told the soldier to stop and punctuated the order by throwing a knife at him, which hit the wall.

“The IDF must act to remove the stain of violence from its midst, even when it’s rare, to take a harsh stance toward violence and to give IDF commanders the tools they need to deal with the challenges of command that they face,” Dahan said.

Dahan blamed such violence on commanders not having the proper knowledge and “tools” to know how to calmly deal with difficult situations

The IDF said it did not accept violence of any kind, but especially not violence by commanders against their subordinates.

In its statement, the IDF thanked Dahan and his team, saying it would review the document and learn lessons from it in order to “help improve the response given to IDF servicemembers individually and systemically.”

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