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(photo credit: Channel 10)
Brig.-Gen. Gal Hirsch, whose division conducted much of the fighting during this summer's war in Lebanon, resigned from active service Sunday morning, hours before an investigative committee said the kidnapping of two reservists under his command should have been prevented.
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The dramatic announcement by Hirsch, the commander of the Galilee Division, was made at the start of a General Staff meeting, just before Maj.-Gen. (res.) Doron Almog was to recommend his dismissal following an investigation that focused on the July 12 kidnapping of IDF reservists Ehud Goldwasser and Eldad Regev by Hizbullah fighters.
Almog's probe also found serious inadequacies in the IDF's Intelligence branch, the Northern Command and within the General Staff itself.
Almog said the policy of restraint in recent years let Hizbullah position itself meters from the security fence, making the cross-border abduction possible and allowing the Islamist organization to fire Katyusha rockets at will at northern communities during the war.
According to sources present in the closed door meeting, a heated argument erupted between Almog and IDF Chief of General Staff Lt.-Gen. Dan Halutz. Halutz rejected the criticism leveled against the General Staff as baseless, accepting only the report's findings at the divisional level. Halutz reportedly ordered the committee members to reexamine some parts of their inquiry.
During the five-hour meeting, Halutz also asked Hirsch three times to retract his resignation. Hirsch agreed to stay in his position until a replacement could be found, Army Radio reported.
Almog submitted the findings to Defense Minister Amir Peretz later in the evening.
Hirsch would be the third senior officer to quit since the war, following the resignation of his immediate superior, OC Northern Command Maj.-Gen. Udi Adam, and operations officer Col. Boaz Cohen. At least five major generals told Halutz that they opposed dismissing Hirsch from the IDF and suggested removing him from field command instead.
"What caused him to quit was a long process that began during the war as he faced criticism directed at him from all directions over his functioning during the fighting," Maj.-Gen. (res.) Eyal Ben-Reuven, a close friend of Hirsch, told Army Radio.
"He was badly wronged. Something very serious happened; an army that puts its division commanders in the first row facing the nation, directing all the criticism at them, represents a very serious phenomenon. I feel shame today," he said.
Almog's committee found that soldiers under Hirsch's command committed operational errors before, during and after the kidnapping on July 12.
Two hummers were ambushed by Hizbullah gunmen employing a roadside bomb and anti-tank missiles. Three of the eight reserve soldiers inside the hummers were killed, two were wounded and Goldwasser and Regev were captured in the attack that drew Israel into a costly 34-day war.
The army was perceived to have been blindsided by the attack, despite partial intelligence at the disposal of the division and Northern Command that Almog's committee of security experts concluded should have warranted increased precautions by forces along the border.
Comprehensive training exercises in the area in the spring that involved regular armored and infantry, and reserve units had simulated a scenario that involved captured soldiers, according to reservists who took part in the exercises.
Yet Almog's inquiry found that Regev and Goldwasser's battalion had not exercised an abduction scenario, as required by IDF rules, before the reservists began their stint on the northern border.
"There is a great disparity between the understanding of the abduction threat and the preparations made to prevent it at operational weak points throughout the region," said Almog, adding, "There is a considerable gap between the orders handed down by the Galilee Division and their execution in the field. And it is the execution of the field commands that we are tested by."
Almog conceded that there were no specific intelligence warnings of an impending attack. However, he said past attempts and Hizbullah leader Hassan Nasrallah's call for such an abduction in public speeches should have tipped off senior officers in the Northern Command.
On October 7, 2000, three IDF soldiers were killed and their bodies taken by Hizbullah in a cross-border kidnapping attempt. Since then, there have been at least two other attempts to capture Israeli troops, the most recent on November 11, 2005, when Hizbullah posts along the border fired mortars at an IDF post as a diversion while Hizbullah gunmen using dirt bikes and all-terrain vehicles infiltrated the border village of Ghajar. The attackers were repelled, and at least four were killed by IDF soldiers.
On June 25 of this year, a cross-border raid by Hamas gunmen from the Gaza Strip left two IDF soldiers dead and Cpl. Gilad Shalit hostage, and even without precise intelligence, the inquiry found that the Galilee Division reservists should have been on high alert against a similar attack. Instead, the Northern Command lowered the level of alert along the border two days earlier.
The Almog inquiry also took issue with the decision to send an IDF tank into Lebanon to pursue the attackers several hours after they abducted the soldiers. The tank ran over a massive mine and all four crew members were killed.
Hirsch took the heat for the disastrous abduction and was harshly criticized throughout the war, most notably for his July 25 announcement to the media that the IDF was in control of the southern Lebanese town of Bint Jbail, a Hizbullah stronghold. A day later, eight Golani infantrymen died in the fierce street battles inside Bint Jbail that would continue until the war's final days.
The inquiry found severe faults in the the functioning of officers from the divisional commanders on up.
Hirsch contested the findings, according to which he failed to verify that his instructions were being carried out, and that there was a discrepancy between planning moves and their implementation.
Haim Tzemach, who lost his son, Oz, in the final hours of the war, accused Hirsch of reckless negligence and said he should have resigned immediately following the kidnapping.
"Brig.-Gen. Hirsch initiated this war, though perhaps unintentionally. He needs to quit. He is responsible in every way. One of his orders, for example, of movement out of Bint Jbail in broad daylight, led the soldiers to become sitting ducks. I blame him for not being with my son now," he told Army Radio on Sunday.
In his handwritten letter of resignation, Hirsch said he felt abandoned by his superiors and that he had been used as a scapegoat for inadequacies beyond his control from the outset of the war.
"This is not the way to treat a commander," he wrote, and said "responsibility for the errors and failures lies not only with the frontline units and their commanders. There is responsibility that truly should be taken by the military's upper echelons as well."
Hirsch insisted that he had acted appropriately before and during the war, and said he decided to resign to spare his family the pain of more criticism directed against him. He asked that the appointments of other division commanders not be effected, and added that he was proud to have had the privilege of defending the country.
Military sources familiar with the investigation had anticipated that Almog would recommend Hirsch's dismissal, and were surprised by Halutz and the General Staff's decision on October 30 that Hirsch would complete his term as brigadier general and then be promoted to head the Strategy Division in the IDF's Planning Directorate.
The better-than-expected recommendations for Hirsch and the three other divisional commanders involved in the summer's fighting surprised military analysts.
Despite the poor results in Lebanon, Hirsch was promoted to a prestigious position within the General Staff, Brigadier Generals Eyal Eizenberg and Erez Zuckerman kept their commands of reserve divisions, while Guy Tzur, commander of an armored division, was transferred to head the main IDF ground forces training base in the South.
Peretz, however, did not approve the appointments and instructed Halutz not to promote any senior IDF staff until the inquiries into the management of the second Lebanon war were completed.
Senior security officials said Peretz holds the field commanders at the divisional level largely at fault for the unsatisfactory outcome of the fighting, and he was reportedly upset that the General Staff went public with the appointments without his rubber stamp.
The disagreement over the appointments signified a growing rift between Peretz and Halutz, who military sources say are becoming estranged in the face of calls for their own resignations following the war.
Peretz, on the other hand, accepted Hirsch's resignation almost immediately. Peretz said he respected the decision, and said Hirsch had "contributed to the security of Israel as a moral and ethical leader during his distinguished service."
Peretz later received the investigative committee's report in a meeting that included Halutz and the new OC Northern Commander Gadi Eizencott. Peretz said he accepted the conclusions of the inquiry into the kidnapping and the actions of the Galilee Division and its brigades, and ordered a speedy follow up on the recommendations made in the report, according to a statement released by the defense ministry.