mag - Alon Ron - November 4 2010
MAG Avichai Mendelblit found graffiti outside his home yesterday. Photo by Alon Ron
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Moti Kimche
Graffiti outside MAG Avichai Mendelblit’s home, reading “traitor.” Photo by Moti Kimche

Military Advocate General Brig. Gen. Avichai Mendelblit left his home in Petah Tikva at about 7 A.M. with two of his children. He planned to take them to school on his way to his office in Tel Aviv. He noticed a large graffiti on the wall near the house: "Mendelblit is a traitor," it said in Hebrew. Mendelblit quickly distracted his children so they would not see it, and they went on their way.

There were other graffiti near Mendelblit's home yesterday. One said, "Mendelblit and Goldstone are traitors."

Mendelblit later called Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Gabi Ashkenazi. In recent weeks Mendelblit became the target of an ideological campaign, engineered in part by figures from the extreme right. It was the language used, rather than the violation of his privacy, that disturbed him the most. Exactly 15 years ago, he said yesterday in a reference to the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin, I promised myself not to accept without protest the use of terms like "traitor". We know where that leads.

Mendelblit is not the first senior Israel Defense Forces officer to be targeted in this way. Former Central Command GOC Yair Naveh faced frequent demonstrations outside his home, inflammatory leaflets in his synagogue and attempts to organize a religious ban against him. His successor, Gad Shamni, faced similar treatment.

The Jewish desk of the Shin Bet security service has been warning for years, especially since 2005, of plans by the radical right to assassinate public employees. Religiously observant officers such as Mendelblit are prime targets. But while Naveh, Shamni and others were singled out because of their role in the withdrawal from the Gaza Strip, in evacuating West Bank outposts or issuing restrictive orders against radical right-wing activists, Mendelblit's "sin" was his decision to prosecute a number of soldiers for crimes committed during Operation Cast Lead.

The immediate trigger was the conviction last month of two Givati Brigade soldiers on charges relating to their having forced a 9-year-old Palestinian boy to open suspicious bags in the Gaza operation. The sentencing phase of the trial began about two weeks ago, accompanied by a demonstration by more than 200 Israelis, including reservists, outside the court. The supporters' main argument is that the soldiers paid the price of international pressure on Israel. Some even claimed the army sacrificed the grunts in order to protect their superiors from prosecution.

Up to this point, the issue is a legitimate dispute that has flared sporadically since the first intifada, in the 1980s, over questions of morality in combat, the boundaries of judicial intervention, the constant tension between the combat soldiers on the ground and the army lawyers in their offices ("under the neon lights," goes the tired accusation ) over how much support to extend to the soldiers. Things start to get ugly when figures on the extreme right, who are not guided by concern for the soldiers, start stirring the pot.

A few weeks ago, a rabbinical conference headed by Rabbi Yitzhak Shapira was held in Petah Tikva on a Saturday night. Shapira, head of the Od Yosef Chai Yeshiva, in the settlement of Yitzhar, is a leader of the extreme right in the West Bank and is a frequent target of Shin Bet interrogations and surveillance. After the conference Shapira and other rabbis issued a religious edict calling on soldiers to use, when necessary, the "neighbor procedure" - a practice, outlawed by the High Court of Justice of using a Palestinian civilian as a "human shield" in various situations when confronting Palestinian militants.

Jewish ethics, Shapira argued, requires the soldiers to take every precaution to protect their lives, even at the price of the lives of non-Jews.