Civilianize the investigations

Editorial

Haaretz

Kislev 13, 5765

The Israel Defense Forces, led by Lieutenant General Moshe Ya'alon, has been waging a tough battle in recent weeks against critics who are demanding that probes of fatal incidents, such as the "confirmed kill" incident outside the Girit outpost or the killing of three Egyptian policemen in the same area, be taken out of the army's hands. Chief of Staff Ya'alon is a leading and veteran representative of the school that favors leaving military investigations to the army. But for all the positive motives that it is reasonable to attribute to him, his conclusion is mistaken and stems from his desire to defend the institution he heads. Army investigations are too important to be controlled by the army.

The IDF likes to claim that it has a monopoly on the professional knowledge needed to conduct an investigation, as military activity requires up-to-date information. Another argument is that the IDF is no less interested, and even more interested, than its critics in uncovering the truth, so as not to come to grief with similar incidents in the future. The General Staff also argues that the immunity granted to participants in an operational inquiry ensures that those involved will tell the truth, without fear of incriminating themselves. This is also part of the internal debate within the army between the command echelon (which lauds the operational inquiry) and the legal echelon (which prefers an investigation ordered by the military prosecution and carried out by the military police). In this debate, as well, Ya'alon is in the front ranks of the inquiry's champions.

But a growing list of embarrassing and even humiliating incidents (such as the Palestinian violinist who was forced to play for soldiers at a checkpoint, as revealed in yesterday's Haaretz) has taught the civilian public, which sends its sons to do compulsory military service and reserve duty, that it cannot rely on the IDF or on the seriousness of its inquiries. The chief of staff himself expressed a lack of confidence in the Southern Command and Gaza Division officers who investigated the actions of the company commander at Girit. The chief of staff's claim that he found nothing new in the communication network tapes that are serving as a prosecution exhibit in the company commander's trial is unconvincing. The recorded conversations - like the lack of coordination between the lookout officer and the tank crew that shelled the Egyptian policemen - reveal something astounding: Superior officers in the rear, from the battalion that commands the companies and outposts, do not intervene to prevent disasters.

Airlines and airplane manufacturers do not investigate plane crashes; this is done by a special professional agency that has no personal interest in the investigation's outcome. The IDF also marched in this direction, but only half a step. After the 1997 helicopter disaster, for instance, the defense minister removed the investigation from the air force commander's hands, but did not take the next necessary step: allowing an agency outside his ministry to investigate his own actions and those of the chief of staff.

Israel has a large reservoir of professional officers who are no longer in the standing army, but serve in the reserves and as consultants on special contract. Experts such as these could operate in the framework of a military investigation agency in the Justice Ministry, like the department for investigating policemen or the ombudsman for people interrogated by the Shin Bet security service. This is not the privatization of military probes, but their civilianization - and the army's loss of prestige will be more than compensated by renewed faith in the investigation of its failures.