It's time for an IDF mindset change - editorial

In less than two week, two horrific accidents have left four IDF officers dead.

IDF Chief of Staff Aviv Kochavi attends a Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee meeting in November. (photo credit: YONATAN SINDEL/FLASH90)
IDF Chief of Staff Aviv Kochavi attends a Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee meeting in November.
(photo credit: YONATAN SINDEL/FLASH90)

Things are not going well for the IDF recently.

In less than two weeks, two horrific accidents left four families, of four excellent officers, in a state of tragedy and mourning.

Last week, Maj. Itamar Elharar and Maj. Ofek Aharon, company commanders in the elite unit of Egoz, were killed by friendly fire. Two weeks ago, Air Force pilots Lt.-Col Erez Sachaini and Maj. Hen Fogel, died after their helicopter – an aging Atalef– went down after a fire broke out in the left engine and crashed off the coast of Haifa.

In both cases, the accidents could have been avoided. In the friendly fire accident, there are more questions than answers.

The elite Egoz unit was training at the Nebi Musa base in the Jordan Valley. According to reports, one night this week the unit lost expensive night-vision goggles and commanders within the unit assumed that they had been stolen by Bedouin who live nearby.

 Israeli soldiers search for parts of a crashed military helicopter after a military helicopter crashed off the coast of the northern Israeli city of Hafia, January 4, 2022.  (credit: SHIR TOREM/FLASH90) Israeli soldiers search for parts of a crashed military helicopter after a military helicopter crashed off the coast of the northern Israeli city of Hafia, January 4, 2022. (credit: SHIR TOREM/FLASH90)

The operation in which the accident occurred seems to have been an independent initiative of the officers to catch the thieves. During this operation, the officers did not conduct a proper pre-operation procedure; they did not wear full gear and did not carry the essential communication devices. Neither did they coordinate their plans with the local regional brigade or division.

Apparently, during the uncoordinated operation one group of officers went out to search for the goggles while another group went out on its own. Two separate groups, not aware of the other’s whereabouts, eventually led to the tragic denouement.

This leads one to wonder — does this happen often? Are officers in mid-training accustomed to taking the law into their hands and going out to look for thieves? Do members of elite units tend to break the rules and carry out non-official military operations?

This incident is a direct consequence of decades-long negligence by the IDF and the state in dealing with the theft of military equipment.

For years, military bases, mainly in the south, have been raided by Bedouin clans and local tribes which steal large amounts of weaponry, frequently without any resistance.

The army’s response is to constantly change the rules of engagement which leaves soldiers confused and their commanders helpless.

Independent actions, as undertaken by the Egoz officers on Wednesday night, seem to have filled the void. When soldiers fear the punishment they will face for losing a gun or a night-vision system they prefer to initiate action on their own.

This behavior is based on experience. In past exercises there have been attempts to grab soldiers’ weapons. Instead of calling the police, the IDF preferred to ignore the incidents. The soldiers got the message – it is sometimes better not to do anything.

In another incident, soldiers spotted thieves stealing weapons from their southern base. They chased them to their village. There, locals attacked them. The IDF then issued a new rule: chasing thieves is now prohibited.

Defense Minister Benny Gantz, IDF Chief of Staff Aviv Kohavi and OC Central Command Maj.-Gen. Yehuda Fuchs vowed to look into the cases and conduct a comprehensive investigation.

But more is needed. The recent accidents show that the entire system needs to be shaken up. First and foremost, the IDF needs to come up with a clear, thorough and effective plan to stop theft of weapons.

The Israel Police need to be called in to help and rules of engagement should be clear to all – from the simple soldier to senior officers – who together need to end this ludicrous phenomenon, in which the country’s military can’t deal with a bunch of thieves.

Second, it should carry out comprehensive safety and discipline refresher courses across the board.

Under no circumstances should soldiers be allowed to take the law into their hands. This is not the 1950s when low-ranking commanders carried out revenge operations on their own.

It is time for a thorough change.