Major (res.) Eyal Harel, don’t blame the system
By Eran Ben Yaakov
translated by Shlomi Ben Meir
My name is Eran Ben Yaakov, and I am a major in reserve duty. Eyal Harel has served under my command in most of the incidents he describes ("What Really Happens in the World's Most Moral Army", Haaretz, June 19). He was a platoon commander in the engineering company in which I served as deputy commander. In the absence of the company’s commander, I was also the de facto commander of Girit outpost during a large part of the period in question. Later I was appointed commander of the company, and Harel was my deputy during the Second Lebanon War in 2006. Overall, we served together in reserve duty for nearly a decade. I read Harel’s words with sorrow, not only because he distorts the truth, but also because he does so in order to portray himself as a victim, full of regret and yet not responsible for his own actions. But this is not the case. I know him to be a good, virtuous and disciplined person. But, in my opinion, his decisions as a commander weren’t always the best, and it angers me that he blames the system.
Regarding the incident in which a body appeared at Gaza’s shore near Rafah (an Egyptian soldier murdered [in Egypt] drifted to the shore), I was next to Harel when he fired into the air in order to drive the crowd away. I didn’t give him the order. He did it of his own volition, and I scolded him for it was unnecessary. I wasn’t present at the second incident, but according to soldiers who were there, that was an unneeded shooting as well. No one pushed him into this.
As for Girit outpost, there had been a few incidents involving nervous soldiers, especially during our first days there. Once, we started firing because someone mistook a slammed door for an incoming shell. Another time, a tense soldier saw a movement in the bushes and opened fire. These were isolated incidents.
If there had been dozens of cases of heavy firing in all directions, there would have been wounded and dead on the Palestinian side, including civilians, as well as among our forces. But that didn’t happen. The only fatality during our month there was a Palestinian fighter who was part of a cell that lobbed grenades at soldiers from the nearby outpost on their daily patrol. And that was our duty, to protect the patrolling soldiers and the area. Those were the days following Operation Defensive Shield. A Palestinian sniper targeted the outpost (we could see him with thermal observation equipment, but unfortunately we were not able to take him down), there were alerts about tunnel-digging under all the outposts, and the armored patrol faced daily grenade attacks. We responded with restraint, and tellingly, no one who shouldn’t have been hit was hit during our stay there.
When we started our mission in the Girit outpost, the commander who preceded me told us that there had been an infiltration attempt at the near-by settlement. It ended with three fatalities – two terrorists and one soldier. The next day, a force was sent to identify the terrorists’ point of entry and to locate the camera and tape with which they documented the incident. According to the commander, snipers located in the nearby Palestinian houses opened fire on the force. The force responded, taking down the two snipers down, but also killing a six-year-old girl.
I remember thinking to myself that I didn’t intend to tell such a story at the end of my mission. No soldiers, and no six-year-old girl on either side, should be killed on my watch. As officers and commanders, that is our duty. That was also the duty of Harel, and he was fully responsibility for upholding it. If he acted immorally, his behavior was not in accord with his commanders’ position and knowledge. What saddens me about his piece is that, in principal, I’m in favor of a person taking responsibility and admitting a mistake. I believe that Breaking the Silence is in the right when reporting on wrongdoings that have been committed. There’s an obligation to report them, just as in the IDF there is the notion (that doesn’t exist in other armies) called a patently illegal order.
I personally witnessed a foolhardy act, not in the territories. It happened when I had been sent with my soldiers to the north to clear ammunition remnants from a field. When I arrived, I noticed a row of female soldiers, with helmets and goggles as their only protective gear, walking in front of the mine-clearing bulldozer and the specialized units. When I questioned why unprotected soldiers were in the area before the bulldozer had surveyed the area, the officer answered that the soldiers were carrying out “visual scanning.” He also found their instructions suspicious, but he was assured that all was fine. I received similar assurances from higher officers. When I didn’t receive a reasonable answer, I called a friend who gave me the number of Haaretz’s military correspondent. The next day, the paper ran a story about the issue. Needless to say, from that day on, no soldier was endangered in foolhardy “visual scanning” in a field full of explosives.
I’m recounting this incident to underscore that I think that sometimes things are done poorly, and they should be reported. But Harel’s stories are not reports of extreme cases of abuse and inhumanity, but a cowardly reflection of an officer who had to deal with the complexity of being a commander and a target in an occupied territory. Yes, a lot of the decisions there are not simple. And petty, mean people tend to do bad deeds. That’s the reason that officers and commanders should have moral strength and make sure that even in this complicated environment, we remain the most moral army in the world. It's difficult, but that’s our task.