Anonymous blogger probe puts light on IDF suicides

Investigation by blogger "Eishton" leads army to release figures on soldiers suicide, sparking public debate.

Soldiers [illustrative] 370 (photo credit: Ben Hartman)
Soldiers [illustrative] 370
(photo credit: Ben Hartman)
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 added.
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.
Media coverage over the past two weeks led the army to release figures on soldier suicides.
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 attacks.
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.
In the 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 people.”
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 here.”
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 fact.”
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 families.
The official added that the probe had begun after a relative of one of the soldiers saw Eishton’s blog and issued a complaint.
Since 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 branch, Col.
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.
An army official also told the Post that “since the prevention program was launched, there has been a dramatic drop in suicides, despite what the blogger wrote.”
“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.”
The 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 families.
“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 soldier.”
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.