Elite IDF officers criticize military's actions in territories
Four members of crack Air Force unit describe house demolition as immoral, but say they won't refuse to serve.
Four officers in the elite Air Force unit "Shaldag" recently sent a letter to senior Israel Defense Forces officers in which they leveled harsh criticism at the army's operations in the territories.
The officers said that they had no intention of refusing to serve, but objected to some of the army's tactics in the territories. They were particularly troubled by the widespread demolition of houses in Gaza, which they said was immoral and hurt the innocent.
They also criticized specific operations in which they took part, such as one in which soldiers took up positions in Palestinian houses in the southern West Bank town of Yatta. The goal was to keep terrorists away from the roads, but in practice the operation resulted in systematic harassment of the Palestinian population, they wrote.
The four, all doing their compulsory service, hold an air force rank equivalent to company commander. Their letter, first reported on Ma'ariv's Internet site, was sent to Chief of Staff Moshe Ya'alon, Deputy Chief of Staff and former Air Force commander Dan Halutz, and current Air Force Commander Eliezer Shakedi.
The letter supplies a partial answer to a question that has puzzled many observers: Why has there been virtually no public criticism of the army's actions in the territories from soldiers doing their compulsory service? Many reservists have gone public with their criticisms, and some teenagers have refused to be drafted at all, but the draftees have largely been silent.
The Shaldag officers' letter continues a trend that began with Breaking the Silence, a group of newly demobilized soldiers that published highly critical descriptions of army operations in which they participated. Similar criticisms have been voiced in internal army forums: On two different recent occasions, a soldier and an officer serving in the territories protested the IDF's treatment of Palestinian civilians.
In their dispute with the army, the Shaldag officers have two advantages over groups that advocate refusing to serve. First, their criticisms stem from intensive experience in the field, whereas some of the refusal groups expressed objections in principle that were not rooted in actual experience. Second, by stressing that they will not refuse to serve, they have made it impossible for the army to dismiss them as being "outside the consensus."
Shaldag has been deeply involved in the fighting in the territories from the outset. Its members have conducted numerous operations, including ambushes, arrests and even assassinations. That is not true of all of the army's elite units: Some opted to focus on their original mandates and leave the fighting in the territories to others. The Air Force's decision to put Shaldag into the thick of the fighting has only increased the unit's prestige, which had been on the rise even before the intifada started: Today, many senior army officers are Shaldag graduates.
The letter's authors were apparently particularly disturbed by what they saw in Rafah during Operation Rainbow in May. During that operation, the IDF destroyed dozens of houses. The fighting in Gaza is currently very different from that in the West Bank: Lacking the precise intelligence information available in the West Bank and confronted with a growing terrorist threat, the IDF has escalated its operations to the point of collective punishment. In the West Bank, house demolitions are "pinpoint" operations, used to punish the families of suicide bombers. In Gaza, dozens of houses can be destroyed at a time, in an effort to move the front lines away from the settlements and IDF positions.
In their letter, the officers stressed that they are proud to serve in Shaldag and that their goal is to provoke an internal army debate over the issues that trouble them. They charged that mid-level officers often act in ways that violate the IDF's ethos.
The letter has prompted meetings with two of their commanding officers in recent days, and they will soon be meeting with Shakedi as well. One question they were asked is why they went straight to the top with their complaints, rather than turning to their immediate superiors.
However, the army currently has no intention of taking disciplinary action against the four. "There is some justice to some of their complaints," said one officer involved in the affair. "They acted within the system and did not try to turn the affair into a political issue. In my eyes, this was a legitimate protest."