Angry Israeli Parents Take Army to Task Over Accidents


AMIR MELET'S gravestone, a rough-hewn upright slab of marble, stands out sharply in the pine-shaded corner of Yokneam's cemetery that is reserved for soldiers' tombs. The Israeli Army has told Amir's mother to take it down.

The stone does not conform to military regulations.

On each of the standard issue graves next to Amir's, the names, ranks, and numbers are different, but the cause of death given is the same: "Fell in the line of duty." But Shulamit Melet refuses to hide how her youngest son died, and has carved an explanation on his gravestone.

Amir died a year ago in a training accident, and Mrs. Melet believes the Israeli Army allows too many boys to die in accidents. "Because the Army wants to whitewash and hide things, it wants me to remove Amir's stone. But that would be a desecration of his grave," she says angrily.

Mrs. Melet will be among hundreds of bereaved parents who plan to meet today to launch a national organization to campaign against what they call senseless deaths in the Army.

This is the first time that such a group has been formed, with the express intention of publicly attacking the Israel Defense Forces (IDF), this country's most sacred and revered institution, in which almost every citizen serves at some point in his or her life.

The parents' motives are far from pacifist, and they insist fiercely on their patriotism. "We are not going against the Army as the Army," says Haim Tzuriano, whose son died last year in a training accident. "But we do not accept the idea of training accidents, and the Army seems to take them lightly."

Though Army figures show that the number of accidental deaths among its recruits has not increased recently, the issue hit the headlines with the deaths of four paratroopers in a "friendly fire" incident in southern Lebanon late last month.

Coming only a few months after five soldiers were killed during a training maneuver at the Tselim base, the accident in May also coincided with the revelation that three soldiers have killed themselves this year while playing deliberately dangerous games with their guns.

Though operational accidents, training accidents, and self-inflicted injuries are very different phenomena, a common thread runs through them, suggests Reuven Gal, a former chief psychologist to the Israeli Army. "It's the indiscipline of Israeli culture," he says. "We don't like to do things by the book. The desirable mode is to be a little disobedient, and if you are over-disciplined you are seen as a nerd."

When accidental deaths occur, a growing number of parents say, the Army tries to cover up the causes. "They always try to whitewash, rather than try to arrive at the truth," alleges Mr. Tzuriano, whose son, Gil, fell to his death when a cable lifting him into a helicopter snapped.

The Army vehemently denies such charges. "The Israeli Army has no problem being held accountable for its actions," says IDF spokesman Lt. Col. Moshe Fogel. "Accidents are studied at the chief of staff's desk, and they are dealt with in a very, very serious way."

This does not mean, however, that the right people are always punished, critics argue. Two junior officers were found guilty only of negligence in the case of Amir Melet, who was flung to his death by a highly sprung net used to brake aircraft. "The responsibility rests with the highest echelons," Mrs. Melet says. "If every high-ranking officer knew that he was legally responsible, he would take more care" over safety.

"People shake off their responsibilities, and there is no one to talk to," Tzuriano adds. "That's why we want a civilian body to be in charge of investigating accidents in the Army."

Currently all Army accidents are investigated by military commissions of inquiry, which parents believe sometimes put protecting the Army's image ahead of uncovering the truth.

"We must take investigations and trials out of the hands of the Army," Melet argues. "It is not reasonable that the Army should investigate itself."

The IDF, however, is loath to hand over investigations to an outside body. "It is a very important principle that we have to have credibility that our investigations are forthright, open, and honest," Colonel Fogel insists. "We do not want to withdraw to a different level of credibility."

Under fire from critics over the number of accidents recently, Army chief of staff, Gen. Ehud Barak, has produced figures to show that the accident tally has in fact fallen during the past 15 years, despite a 30 percent growth in the Army's size.

But accidents are now reported publicly, Fogel points out, explaining the greater outcry. "In the past, the military censor used to control reports of accidents," he says. "There has been a gradual relaxation of that policy."

At the same time, today's parents have themselves served in the Army, and know what it is like, whereas their own mothers and fathers had no conception of Army life.

Modern parents' "familiarity with the Army is first hand," Fogel points out. "They know the Army's faults up close, they are more knowledgeable and ready to speak out, and less ready to take things for granted."

As a "peoples' army" in which everybody serves, "everybody feels part of it," Dr. Gal adds. "It's not theirs, it's ours. Everyone serves, so the Army is part of our family, not an external, foreign entity."

If the military authorities were stricter about enforcing safety regulations, Tzuriano argues, they could cut the number of accidents. Driving fatalities in Army vehicles were slashed by a program of strict punishment for bad drivers, he recalls.

But in the end, Gal argues, parents cannot expect to have much influence on the way the Army operates. "There is an inherent contradiction between a parent's approach and the military," he says. "The only thing that matters to a mother is her son's life, and all she wants is that the Army should keep her son safe.

"But for the military, the soldier's life is not the goal, it is the means to an objective," he says. "The military and parents are not talking at the same level."

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