TEL AVIV (Nov. 19)
The Israel Defense Force chief of staff has come under sharp fire from Knesset members who say the army kept back information relating to a fatal training accident in the Negev earlier this month.
Lt. Gen. Ehud Barak is expected to be summoned before military police to give his account of the Nov. 5 accidental firing of a missile during an exercise in the Negev, which killed five members of an elite unit and wounded five more.
Barak appeared Tuesday before the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, where members charged the army had failed to submit relevant documents to a commission of inquiry into the accident.
The commission was appointed by Barak and was headed by reserve Maj. Gen. Menahem Einan. Its other members were two IDF colonels and a prominent civilian lawyer.
Yossi Sarid of the dovish Meretz bloc complained that Israel’s military censor had barred reporting in Israel of the fact that Barak himself was present at the fatal accident, a fact that surfaced only in the Einan commission’s report.
The panel, however, cleared the chief of staff of any involvement in the accident.
Barak defended the action of the censor. He said top officers frequently observe major war games and their presence generally goes unreported for reasons of “military security.”
He said, too, he would cooperate with the investigation by military police who, he said, have a right to question anyone they wish.
The chief military censor came under questioning by another parliamentary panel.
Appearing before the Knesset Law Committee, the censor defended the deletion of the names of the chief of staff and a second officer from media reports on the accident.
He again refused to name the second officer present, generally believed to have been the deputy chief of staff.
As military police investigators began their work, another training accident occurred at the Tze’elim base, this time without casualties.
An artillery shell was accidentally discharged in an incident involving a violation of standing regulations. The shell hit a sandbag redoubt on the firing range some distance away, where soldier were taking cover.
The officer in charge was immediately removed from his command, according to unofficial reports.
At the Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee hearing, Sarid challenged army failure to remove the three officers held responsible for the fatal accident at Tze’elim by the Einan commission. He said that could be done without waiting for the outcome of an investigation by the military police.
“The military police automatically opens an investigation after every serious mishap, especially those involving loss of life,” said the Meretz Knesset member.
“Why wait for an inquiry board to propose a military investigation on which to base legal charges against officers already named by the board?”
The Einan board singled out three officers for responsibility in the fatal accident. They included Maj. Gen. Amiram Levin, in overall charge of the drill, and a major and captain directly responsible for implementation of the exercise. But the panel recommended to the army prosecutor that he strike a balance in considering legal action, between the fatal outcome of the training exercise and the quality of the three “talented and devoted officers, among the best in the Israel Defense Force.”
A former chief of staff told Israel Radio on Wednesday that he feared the case would spark a “war of generals.” Mordechai Gur, now the deputy defense minister, said one of the most difficult aspects of his stint as chief of staff had been to restrain public disputes among his generals.