Opening new prison, Military Police seeks criminal reform in IDF

Army’s top cop says his unit has undergone significant reforms following the suicide of a soldier being recruited as a police informant

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

The military's nearly completed Prison 10 complex, which will replace the Israel Defense Forces' existing British Mandate-era prisons in March 2021. (Israel Defense Forces)
The military's nearly completed Prison 10 complex, which will replace the Israel Defense Forces' existing British Mandate-era prisons in March 2021. (Israel Defense Forces)

Two years ago, an Israel Defense Forces soldier died by suicide while being aggressively recruited to serve as an informant against his comrades, who were suspected of selling drugs on their base. Since then, the Military Police says, it has sought to reform not only its methods of recruiting assets but all aspects of the military’s internal justice system, which has long been accused of unequal enforcement and arbitrary punishments.

According to the IDF’s top police officer, Brig. Gen. Yair Bareket, the death of Cpl. Niv Lubaton in January 2019 and its circumstances are discussed constantly within Bareket’s unit as a cautionary tale. He notes that there have been no cases like it since.

Following Lubaton’s suicide, his two Military Police recruiters were arrested and charged, not only over the methods they used to coerce him into cooperating but also for failing to report that he had expressed intentions to harm himself, as they were required to do. The pair did not pass along the information to their superiors even after Lubaton went missing — a first indicator of a potential suicide — and when they finally did report the matter, they did so with false information, according to the indictment.

Lubaton’s case has returned to the headlines in recent weeks, after the investigatory television program “Uvda” obtained and broadcast recordings of the recruiters’ phone calls with him before his death.

The IDF has appealed to a civilian court to allow it to take disciplinary action against the recruiters’ commander, who was held responsible for their behavior but was not directly implicated in Lubaton’s suicide.

Cpl. Niv Lubaton, an IDF soldier who committed suicide as he was being recruited as a Military Police informant in 2019. (Facebook)

Following an internal investigation, IDF Chief of Staff Aviv Kohavi ordered that the officer, a major, be removed from the Military Police’s Investigatory Unit, known by its Hebrew acronym Metzah, and barred from promotion for the next six years.

The officer successfully appealed to a civilian court to have his punishment revoked, a ruling the IDF saw as deeply problematic as it undermines its ability to hold commanders responsible for their subordinates even in cases where they are not personally culpable — a fundamental concept in military hierarchies. Last week, the military filed an appeal with the Supreme Court asking it to overturn the lower court’s ruling.

In light of Lubaton’s suicide, Bareket ordered a full review of the procedure by which Military Police informant recruiters are chosen and trained, adding a psychological evaluation to the process along with a number of additional oversight protocols, he said.

In addition to those specific reforms, the Military Police has more broadly been working to overhaul the IDF’s justice system, with the goal of reducing the number of soldiers in military prisons as well as the rate of recidivism.

Bareket spoke Monday to reporters inside the military’s nearly completed Prison 10, which is scheduled to open in approximately three weeks. The new complex, near the town of Kfar Yona in central Israel, is meant to replace the IDF’s Prison 4 and Prison 6, as well as the military’s three courthouses, bringing them all into one facility. Still, Bareket stressed that the courts and the prison would maintain a high degree of separation and independence.

The military’s nearly completed Prison 10 complex, which will replace the Israel Defense Forces’ existing British Mandate-era prisons in March 2021. (Israel Defense Forces)

The new facility, which is outfitted with some 700 cameras and surrounded by a three-meter-tall (10-foot) concrete wall topped by a 1.5-meter-tall (5-foot) metal fence with barbed wire, can house over 900 inmates. As not all IDF barracks have air conditioning, it was decided that the prison should not have air conditioning in the living quarters, despite it being a new building.

“It is a prison, after all,” said Col. Meital Shushan, the head of policing.

However, each room does come equipped with a flat-screen television, which Shushan said would not only be used for regular broadcasts, but also for educational content and internal messages.

In order to keep as many people as possible out of that prison, the Military Police has been instituting a new ranking system for offenses within the IDF, designed to keep soldiers who have committed comparatively minor disciplinary infractions out of prison and have them serve out their sentences on their home bases instead.

Illustrative. An Israeli military police officer, right, speaks with an imprisoned Israeli soldier at Prison Four, Israel’s largest military prison, at the Tzrifin military base in central Israel on April 26, 2018. (Miriam Alster/FLASH90)

Under the new system, a soldier given a prison sentence of less than 28 days for a first, second or third minor infraction does not have to serve that time in a prison, but will instead do so on their base. A person serving such a sentence for the fourth time will have to do so on a Military Police base. A soldier sentenced to more than 28 days in prison or for the fifth time or more or for a serious crime will serve their sentence in Prison 10 for up to one year. Anyone with a sentence of more than a year or a conviction for a particularly severe crime will serve their time in an Israel Prison Service facility, not a military one.

According to military figures, roughly 44 percent of soldiers in prison are there for at least the second time. The recidivism rate has remained steady for at least the last three years, and in order to fight it, Bareket said the new prison’s staff would work with inmates to find them meaningful positions in the military.

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