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(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
Sgt. Y. has only several months left of his mandatory army service, but last Thursday he just couldn't take it anymore.
Together with close to 100 of his fellow soldiers from Battalion 51 of the Golani Brigade, Y. walked out the front gate of the Tze'elim training base in the Negev Thursday afternoon and began marching up the windy, sandy road toward Beersheba in what was one of the largest "revolts" in IDF history.
The decision to leave the base and essentially revolt against the military was "spontaneous," soldiers recalled this week. But the feeling of deprivation and unfair treatment by their officers had been simmering for several months, ever since Lt.-Col. David Zini took over as Battalion 51's commander.
The problems that led to the revolt actually began a few months earlier, immediately following the Lebanon war. Like most of the IDF, Battalion 51 was deployed inside Lebanon during the 33 days of fighting against Hizbullah.
On July 23, led by then-battalion commander Lt.-Col. Yaniv Asor, the battalion invaded the village of Bint Jbail and was ordered to take up positions on the outskirts of the town where Hizbullah leader Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah delivered a victory speech following Israel's withdrawal from Lebanon in 2000.
The first few days passed fairly quietly as the battalion killed four Hizbullah guerrillas. On July 26, the battalion was ordered to "conquer the town" and during the sweep through its center, eight soldiers - including deputy battalion commander Maj. Ro'i Klein - were killed.
Close to eight months have passed since that fateful day and according to soldiers in the battalion their mental health needs were ignored by their officers and they were returned to duty as if nothing had happened.
Once the dust of the war settled, the battalion began to feel the void that had been left by the loss of Klein - who died heroically when he jumped on top of a grenade to save other soldiers - and the seven others who died in Bint Jbail. The soldiers asked to meet with an IDF mental health officer to discuss their feelings. Their request, they claimed this week, was ignored.
"It took four months before we were given the opportunity to sit and talk with a mental health officer," said Y., explaining that despite Golani's tough image, even the bravest of soldiers need help. "We do not go through a war every day," he said.
What added to the distress was Zini's appointment to the battalion. Asor, who after the war was appointed commander of Golani's elite Egoz unit, grew up in Golani and served in a number of positions inside the brigade. Zini was considered an outsider. He came from Sayeret Matkal - the General Staff Reconnaissance Unit - where he served in a number of positions before joining Golani.
"He was not one of us," explained several soldiers. "He was not familiar with our way of doing things."
The IDF Spokesman's Office dismissed the soldiers' claims and said that "since the war in Lebanon, mental health experts have been accompanying the soldiers and officers of the Golani Brigade and particularly Battalion 51."
According to military sources, since the war, soldiers have received appointments with mental health officers several days after asking for them. "Battalion 51 was put on the top of list for meetings with mental health officers," the IDF said.
THE SOLDIERS tell a different story. They claim that since Zini took command, norms that were entrenched in the brigade were disregarded. Singing at meals and during training exercises was forbidden. Privileges for soldiers who had served in the battalion for close to two years were canceled, and soldiers who were only months from completing their military service were treated like new recruits.
"Zini brought in new regulations and practices," said a soldier who took part in the revolt. "He didn't grow up in the brigade and when he came, he threw away all of our traditions and didn't care that this was the way things had been for decades."
Established in 1948, the Golani Brigade is one of the most highly decorated infantry units in the IDF. Usually deployed along the northern border, the brigade has fought in all of Israel's wars and its soldiers have earned the reputation of being diehard, dedicated, innovative and well-trained troops who are given particularly difficult missions.
Golani is also known for its high level of camaraderie and has produced some of the leading commanders in the IDF, including Chief of General Staff Lt.-Gen. Gabi Ashkenazi, Deputy Chief of General Staff Maj.-Gen. Moshe Kaplinsky, OC Central Command Maj.-Gen. Yair Naveh and OC Northern Command Maj.-Gen. Gadi Eizenkot.
At the same time, however, the brigade has a reputation of raising soldiers who are reckless and often lack basic discipline.
Last Thursday's revolt was not the first time that soldiers from the brigade took matters into their own hands. In the late 1990s, two companies revolted against their officers, left their posts and went home. More than 70 soldiers went to jail and the companies were disbanded. Last April, 25 soldiers left their base near Metulla to protest their commander's decision to expel a number of their comrades from their battalion.
According to Prof. Arye Yitzhaki, a military historian and expert on the IDF, last week's walkout was the largest "revolt" since the War of Independence in 1948 when the entire Moriya Battalion defected from the Jerusalem Brigade to the Palmah.
"There have been dozens of revolts in the Golani Brigade," Yitzhaki said. "This was the biggest one, but there have been cases in which soldiers even threw smoke grenades into their officer's tent."
IDF legal sources pointed out that last week's walkout did not exactly meet the criteria for a revolt. The Military Justice Law, legislated in 1955, contains a section entitled "Mutiny" that refers to soldiers who disobey orders in time of war or a soldier who uses his weapon against his commander. This, IDF legal experts admit, was not the case with the Golani "revolt."
"There is a wrong use of semantics here," explained a high-ranking officer in the Judge Advocate-General's Office. "What the Golani soldiers did was not like disobeying an order in time of war."
The law contains two sections he said would better apply to the type of revolt launched by the Golani troops. One is Section 48 entitled "Rebellion," which talks of soldiers who take action to disrupt military order. The other is Section 49, entitled "Demonstration that causes harm to military discipline." It refers to soldiers who do something that disrespects their officers or goes against the IDF's disciplinary rules.
"The use of the word 'revolt' is not correct for this situation," explained the officer. "These types of events need to be dealt with on a command and disciplinary level and not with laws that deal with far more serious types of revolts."
COL. TAMIR YIDAI, commander of the Golani Brigade, met with the soldiers after they returned to their base on the day of the revolt and promised to fix some of the problems and complaints they had raised.
The soldiers walked away feeling that the situation would improve, but then 11 soldiers - believed to have been the organizers of the revolt - were sent to jail for periods ranging from 30 to 56 days after hearings before Yidai on Monday. Seven other soldiers were confined to their base for the next month.
Now soldiers are threatening to launch another revolt if their complaints are not responsibly addressed and their needs not cared for.
The rift between the soldiers and Zini also has to do with the commemoration of the eight soldiers who were killed in Bint Jbail.
On their own initiative, soldiers who fought inside the town the day their comrades were killed came up with innovative ways to commemorate them. One hung a black flag in his room with the eight names written on it. Others took a black piece of plastic and replaced the brown one that served as the background for the Golani pin they wear on their uniforms.
Zini and Yidai ordered the soldiers to take down the flag and to replace the black background with the traditional brown one.
But that's not all. Two months ago, the city of Katzrin organized a "March of the Torch" in commemoration of the dead soldiers. The battalion was invited to participate in the march from Modi'in to the Golan Heights. The battalion sent almost all of its soldiers to participate in the march, during which each kilometer was walked by a different soldier. At the finishing line in Katzrin there was a ceremony attended by the mayors of Safed and Katzrin, but Zini did not show up.
"This was the greatest possible insult," one of the soldiers who participated said. "The commander of the battalion which is being honored does not even bother to show up and respect the memory of his dead soldiers."
In response, sources close to Zini said that he had notified the Katzrin Municipality that he and other officers and soldiers might not be able to make the ceremony due to the battalion's ongoing operations around Mount Hermon.
"The organizers of the march were notified from the beginning that the commanders might not be able to participate in the ceremony due to military operations and visits they were conducting at the same time to families of the dead soldiers," one source claimed. "Despite their many efforts to come, in the end the commanders did not succeed in making it."
The soldiers also complained that they were not allowed to see a doctor and that when they complained they were told by their commanders: "If you have a problem, then just leave."
"This type of attitude began when Zini took over the battalion," said one soldier. "He does not know what this brigade is about. You have to adapt to the people here, especially after we watched as our friends were killed in the line of duty."
On Friday, Zini convened all of the battalion's soldiers for a talk about the revolt and its consequences. According to soldiers who were there, he said he did not plan on changing his strict disciplinarian policies.
"He did, however, say that he would conduct his own personal reevaluation to see where he went wrong," a military source said. "When 100 soldiers walk out like that the officers need to sit down and see where they might have gone wrong."
According to Brig.-Gen. (res.) Baruch Spiegel, a former Golani Brigade commander, the soldiers' claim that a commander needs to come from within the brigade is baseless.
"These types of revolts have happened to some of the best battalion commanders in Golani history," said Spiegel, who served as the brigade's commander from 1988 to 1990. "This is a problem that needs to be dealt with all the time in all of the different IDF units."
Commanders, Spiegel said, need to "always have their sensors working" to be able to prevent revolts and walkouts.
"These soldiers are working in the most difficult line of work there is," he said. "There needs to be a way to release pressure on the soldiers and find a better balance between their needs and what the commanders want."
Otherwise, the revolts will only continue.