Swords of Iron

Israel does not have a culture of accountability

Five months into this war, how are high-ranking officers still safe in their jobs while shamelessly reprimanding those below them?

Until this war, Brig.-Gen. Barak Hiram was anything but a household name. He was an accomplished infantry officer who had climbed the ranks in the Golani Brigade and was known within the IDF as someone who led troops from the front. One example of this was during the Second Lebanon War in 2006 when, as commander of an Egoz company, he was seriously injured and lost one of his eyes.

Since October 7, Hiram has become famous, although not to his liking. First, there was the report that he ordered a tank commander to fire a shell at a home in Be’eri where hostages were being held at gunpoint by Hamas terrorists. Only two of the 14 hostages in the home survived.

Next, was Hiram’s decision to blow up the Islamic University in the Gaza Strip without proper approval from the commander of the Southern Command. Apparently, Hiram felt that his soldiers were at risk due to intelligence indicating that tunnels were located under the university and decided to destroy the complex in a controlled explosion. The problem was that he skipped the necessary approval process, a decision that got him reprimanded by OC Southern Command Maj.-Gen. Yaron Finkelman.

Finally, there was the news this week that despite these two incidents – and maybe specifically because of them – Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu decided to interview Hiram for the role of military secretary to replace Maj.-Gen. Avi Gil, who will step down in the coming months.

There is little doubt that Hiram is an accomplished officer who has years of combat experience under his belt. According to IDF sources, he is highly motivated and the kind of combat officer any military would want to have in its ranks, someone who pushes forward, engages the enemy, and runs into fire as opposed to away from it.

What exactly happened in Be’eri on October 7 is an incident that we will not be able to judge. That day was full of rapid decisions that had to be made by commanders who were on the ground with little, if any, intelligence. While the ending was tragic, the circumstances under which Hiram made his decision were complex.

Nevertheless, his story raises some serious questions, particularly the decision to reprimand him by officers whose future is under a cloud. Finkelman is the head of the Southern Command. It was under his watch that the Hamas invasion occurred on October 7. When the war winds down, he is expected to step down alongside IDF Chief of Staff Lt.-Gen. Herzi Halevi, who approved the reprimand, and several other high-ranking officers such as Military Intelligence head Maj.-Gen. Aharon Haliva, who amazingly still remains in his position.

Five months into this war, how are these officers are all still safe in their jobs and even reprimanding a division commander for tactical decisions? What about their role in all of what has been happening? How come none of them think they need to pay a price?

As of now, they apparently don’t. According to sources close to several of these officers, both Halevi and Haliva, for example, plan on resigning at some point but not yet, as does Shin Bet (Israel Security Agency) director Ronen Bar, another person responsible for the intelligence failure that led to the Hamas massacre.

But this doesn’t stop them from reprimanding Hiram or from summoning Brig.-Gen. Dan Goldfuss – who gave a speech on Wednesday telling the government that it needs to better appreciate its soldiers – for a dressing-down. Has anyone reprimanded Halevi or Haliva for the mistakes that they made? No. But Hiram and Goldfuss are fair game.

The stories of Hiram and Goldfuss feel like examples of what in the army is referred to as the “Shin Gimel” phenomenon, a term used to describe how probes end with the punishment of junior commanders and not the more senior ones.

I don’t know whether Hiram deserves to be reprimanded and I also don’t know if what he did in Be’eri on October 7 was right or wrong. Goldfuss might have spoken out of turn, but what he said needed to be heard by the public and particularly the government. What I do know is that there is something wrong with the fact that a bunch of officers whose future is uncertain are judging the officers who are fighting the war with unbelievable courage.

The problem is that there is no one to show them the way.

It is legitimate to discuss whether officers should step down while the war is ongoing – even though things have been winding down in recent weeks – but the main problem is that there is an accountability deficit in Israel.

The commander of the Israel Defense Forces’ 98th Division, Brig. Gen. Dan Goldfus

This deficit was evident last week when the state-appointed commission of inquiry which investigated the disaster at Mount Meron in 2021 released its findings. Forty-five people were killed on Lag Ba’omer in what remains the greatest civilian disaster in Israel’s history.

Somehow, though, the man who was the prime minister then is still the prime minister today, the police chief then is the police chief today, and the minister of public security then actually received a promotion a year ago and is today Speaker of the Knesset.

This is despite the fact that the commission of inquiry established to investigate the disaster – why it happened and who was responsible – found that Netanyahu was responsible, that police chief Kobi Shabtai was responsible, and that the police minister then, Amir Ohana, was also responsible. Nevertheless, they all are still in government jobs.

When you think about it, the Meron disaster was the writing on the wall for the disaster that struck the country on October 7. It showed us already three years ago how human life is viewed by the government, how ministers don’t really care for their people and how the “everything will be okay” culture of Israel prevails over everything. That is until it is simply not.

Israel does not have a culture of accountability. This is evident from Meron, from October 7, and from the way the top IDF brass remain in their positions while reprimanding lower-ranking officers like Hiram and Goldfuss.

October 7 needs to be the catalyst for change on many levels – how Israel manages the threats it will continue to face in the Gaza Strip and how the people in charge of this country view their roles and what responsibility actually means.

Unfortunately, right now, it doesn’t mean very much.

Published by Jerusalem Post