The police and army investigation of an anonymous blogger has brought the issue
of IDF suicides into the public arena, leading the military to release figures
on soldiers who take their own lives, and sparking a debate on press
intimidation in the country.
The investigation came to light on December
12, when blogger “Eishton” (a combination of the Hebrew words for “man” and
“newspaper”) changed the banner of his blog.
“Eishton is currently under
a combined police-military police investigation!! I am forbidden to speak about
the details of the investigation, whose only purpose is to silence me, harm me
and extort me into handing over private and protected information in order to
incriminate myself and others,” the banner said.
“If this site crawls to
a halt or stops being updated, know that this was done against my will and that
I am being subjected to anti-democratic measures, which violate accepted
journalistic ethics and censor information that the public has a right to know,”
It later emerged that the probe had been launched in the wake
of a three-part investigative report Eishton published beginning in April, which
examined discrepancies in the official IDF death toll for 2011 and figures
appearing on government-run memorial websites.
Though the Israeli press
described the report as an exposé focusing solely on IDF suicides, the long,
heavily researched series was based on efforts to determine the identities of
all 126 fallen soldiers, independent of the issue of suicide.
coverage over the past two weeks led the army to release figures on soldier
The figures show that there were 14 suicides in the army this
year, the lowest in at least 23 years. They indicate that in 2011 there were 21
IDF suicides, and that over the past seven years, the worst was 2010, when 28
soldiers took their own lives.
Before the army launched a program aimed
at improving the way mental health issues are handled among soldiers, there were
between 34 and 40 per year, the army said on Wednesday.
In his first post
in April, Eishton wrote, “Who were these soldiers that the Left says died in
vain? Who were these heroes that, because of them, the Right says our country is
standing? The fact is, even with all the ceremonies and magic words –
memorialization, heroism, memory – no one actually knows who our fallen soldiers
are. I decided I would change that. I decided I would study and learn the
stories of all 126 who died this past year.”
Eishton said that while
looking at that figure, he had begun checking the government’s Yizkor website,
which lists all IDF soldiers who died while in uniform, whether in battle or
from accidents or even illness.
He found that only 97 names appeared.
Another 16 names appeared on a website listing civilians killed in terror
Using internal IDF documents – specifically incident reports on
soldiers’ deaths, received from a confidential source he calls “Aleph” – Eishton
began looking for the additional 13 names and examining the causes of death. He
found that the cause of death was not noted for 63 of these people. He also
found that 35 were people who had not died in the past year, but had instead
been retroactively recognized as fallen soldiers.
Eishton’s work hasn’t
been solely a dry, statistical piece of investigative journalism. As a blogger,
he mixes reporting with his own commentary, and seems to be very interested in
the way Israel groups together all soldiers who die in service.
first part of the series, he ponders in passing why Israel doesn’t acknowledge
school teachers who die “while trying to save the future of our children,” or
doctors or artists, and why their deaths aren’t attached to some greater
pantheon of Israel’s national preservation. He also expresses a keen interest in
how recognition of people as fallen soldiers allows their families to receive
large annual tax exemptions – even if they died years after completing their
service – arguing that since such funds come from public coffers, the issue is
one of public interest.
Eishton keeps his identity a closely guarded
secret, and reportedly there are only a few people who know who he is – now
including the police, who reached him, he claims, after obtaining a court order
to question his Internet service provider. His blog, launched in February,
covers a variety of issues, including a nearly 5,000-word piece on his
experiences during an extended period in and around south Tel Aviv’s main bus
station, titled “A week at the Central Bus Station: A story of rats and
In his piece on fallen soldiers, he writes that according to his
research, the rate of suicides among soldiers is higher than that among army-age
citizens who are not serving. He is demanding that the army release each name
with the cause of death, saying, “It’s not only suicides that are the problem;
it’s the problem that they want us to think that every fallen soldier died in
service of his country.”
Eishton’s series cites a 2010 Health Ministry
report on suicides, which says that there were about 6.5 suicides for every
100,000 Israelis between the ages of 15 and 24 that year.
He then cites a
report by the Institute for National Security Studies, which says there are
175,000 soldiers on active duty in the IDF, reaching the conclusion that
according to Health Ministry figures, there should be at most 16 suicides a year
in the IDF, when the actual number is around 30.
“In their [the army’s]
defense, there are those who say the families prefer it this way,” he says,
regarding the issue of failing to list the cause of death, “but it’s more
important that we deal with the problem of those who will continue to die [of
suicide] rather than protect the honor of those who are no longer
In a comment on his Facebook page, Eishton takes issue with the
explanation that IDF officers are being trained in the field to deal with
soldiers’ mental issues.
“I don’t accept the IDF explanation that they
are training the commanders when the commanders are 19-year-old kids,” he says.
“These are not psychologists and they for the most part still don’t have the
emotional maturity to be empathetic enough and identify the suffering of others.
There are many, many cases where people who committed suicide notified their
commanders again and again of their distress.”
He also addresses the ease
of gaining service exemptions for other reasons.
“In a country where half
the public gets an exemption for reasons much less dramatic, I don’t understand
why we fight so hard for these people [to perform IDF service]. If we can get
automatic exemptions for people going to a yeshiva, and also for a large
percentage of women, we can also exempt those people who are having emotional
difficulties in the army.”
On Wednesday, the Journalists Association
contacted the national police chief, Insp.- Gen. Yohanan Danino, and IDF Chief
of Staff Lt.-Gen.
Benny Gantz, requesting a clarification of the decision
to investigate Eishton.
In the letter, titled “A serious blow to
journalistic immunity and freedom of the press,” the organization wrote of its
“deep concern about the serious blow to the freedom of the press taking part
under your watch.”
The organization also said it had called on the Israel
Press Council to meet on the matter next Wednesday.
“The demand that
[Eishton] violate journalistic ethics and reveal sources through threats in
investigation rooms, deals a serious blow to freedom of the press, freedom of
speech, and the right to criticize the government in a democratic society,” the
letter said. “The fact that he is an anonymous blogger and not a journalist at
an established, credentialed organization does not in any way diminish this
An army official who spoke to The Jerusalem Post said the
documents leaked to Eishton did not present any sort of security threat and were
not classified or considered sensitive.
Rather, they were internal IDF
documents not meant to be released to the public.
Therefore, the issue
must be investigated. The official also said there was a privacy issue involved
with the publication of the soldiers’ names against the wishes of their
The official added that the probe had begun after a relative of
one of the soldiers saw Eishton’s blog and issued a complaint.
Eishton is not a soldier in active service, the military police are carrying out
the investigation alongside the Israel Police.
On Wednesday, following an
inquiry by the Post, the army sent a statement by the head of the mental health
Ayal Proctor. The statement speaks of the army’s efforts to
handle mental health issues among soldiers, which have focused on three areas:
greater training for officers, reducing the number of soldiers who take their
weapons home, and a close examination of each case of suicide.
official also told the Post that “since the prevention program was launched,
there has been a dramatic drop in suicides, despite what the blogger
“Prior to the past seven years, there were 35-40 suicides per
year, but [the numbers have] dropped significantly since the project was
launched. Last year there were 21, and this year, so far, there have been 14,
the lowest in decades. The figures [Eishton] presented are warped and not based
on anything from the army. They are lies and not accurate at all.”
official said the IDF takes the families into account when deciding whether to
write the cause of death, but it never tries to hide the cause of death from the
“We have realized in the past decade, and especially in the
past four years, that the duty of a mental health officer is not to sit at a
distance and decide whether or not a soldier is fit for duty, but to be as close
as possible to the unit,” the official said. “The IDF does not allow the cause
of death to change how it relates to any family – a fallen soldier is a fallen
The army said it presented a report to the Knesset Foreign
Affairs and Defense Committee each year listing every IDF death over the course
of the previous year, with a name and cause of death, and that the list was
available to citizens.
A spokesman for the committee, however, said that
such reports were given only if the committee called a hearing on a specific
issue. He did not know whether such reports had been submitted in the three
years he has worked for the committee.
“If it’s all open and accessible,
why did Eishton have to turn the world upside down and use documents from a
confidential source?” the spokesman asked.
“Why wouldn’t he just turn to
the IDF Spokesman’s Office and receive the list? Why would he be under
investigation, too?” Contacted by the Post on Facebook this week, Eishton
declared that he did not grant interviews, adding that he had pretty much said
everything he had to say on Facebook and his blog.