How Israeli Military Chief Tried and Failed to Spark Debate on Shooting Palestinian Teens

Gadi Eisenkot aimed his controversial remarks on response to Palestinian stabbings at the political arena; politicians were not interested.

IDF Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Gadi Eisenkot at a ceremony on Mount Herzl, Jerusalem, April 19, 2015.
Emil Salman

IDF Chief of Staff Gadi Eisenkot is no political naif. He knew exactly the sort of uproar his words on the way the IDF is facing the recent wave of stabbings would cause, and he chose his venue with care. He didn’t speak out at a cabinet meeting or Knesset committee, but dropped his bombshell, of all places, at an appearance before high school students in Bat Yam. He was speaking to the soldiers of tomorrow on the actions of the soldiers of today, but he certainly foresaw that his words would reverberate further.

“The IDF cannot speak in slogans such as ‘if someone comes to kill you, arise to kill them first,’ or ‘everyone who carries scissors should be killed,’” he said. And he had an example for what was bothering him: “There were places with a 13-year-old girl holding scissors or a knife, and there’s a barrier between her and the soldiers. I wouldn’t want to see a soldier opening fire and emptying a (rifle) magazine on such a girl.” Eisenkot wasn’t doing more than repeating the principles of the Israel Defense Forces’ long-standing rules of engagement: that a soldier should only shoot to kill in a clear life-threatening situation. But he knew that in the current atmosphere of hysteria over the stabbings, it is no longer that clear.

This should be a relatively straightforward debate. A young man or woman with a knife, even a teenager, can kill, as we saw only last week and as we have seen dozens of times in the past few months. Does that mean the standard preventive measure of a soldier or police officer should be to shoot to kill in every case?

This has been the response in around 60 percent of attempted stabbings over the last four months. Eisenkot was simply telling the high-schoolers that there are cases when it’s not necessary to go all the way. He didn’t go into the much more controversial issue of “confirming the kill,” or, as it’s sometimes called in Western armies, “double-tap” – shooting a second bullet into the head of a prone enemy combatant on the battlefield to ensure he doesn’t still pose a threat. But it turned out that what Eisenkot had said was controversial enough. He was immediately lambasted by right-wing politicians, pundits and of course by a baying mob on social media.

The barrage of criticism targeting Eisenkot focused on three issues. He was accused of not being supportive enough of his soldiers and at the same time not being sufficiently decisive against terror. Religious politicians acted shocked that he could refer to the quote from the ancient Midrash of “he who comes to kill you” as a mere “slogan.” And there were those who were particularly outraged that the chief of staff seemed to be lending credence to the “enemies of Israel” who have accused the IDF of carrying out summary executions of Palestinian youths.

Criticism was beside Eisenkot's point

Ironically, very little of the politicians’ criticism was in response to what Eisenkot was actually saying. Only a tiny handful of them sought to disagree with him on the tactical level – that once an assailant is carrying out his or her intentions, no risks must be taken and even if it’s just a teenage girl with a pair of scissors, she must be neutralized. Only a few even tried to make that point. No one, from what I have seen, engaged Eisenkot on the deeper level of his remarks – that he simply didn’t want Israeli soldiers emptying their rifles on that teenager, because it’s just not a good thing to be doing and shouldn’t need explaining.

This could have been a good opportunity to re-inject a degree of sanity into the public discourse. But Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu preferred not to take sides, not to challenge either his own right-wing allies or the popular chief of staff. On Sunday, four days after Eisenkot’s meeting with the high-schoolers, Netanyahu finally came around to expressing his views on the issue. Only he didn’t. He said it was “an empty argument,” that Eisenkot had just been “stating the obvious” and that the attacks on him were motivated by “a lack of understanding or a desire for political attack.” That was that. No need for any debate.

This of course is not the first time the IDF’s commander and the political establishment have been at loggerheads. Only recently we’ve had a discreet but important difference of opinion between Netanyahu and his security chiefs on the implications of the Iranian nuclear deal. There are other disagreements between them over the Palestinian and Syrian issues which rarely, if ever, come out in the open. Eisenkot certainly is not the kind of chief of staff to seek an open confrontation with his political masters. It’s doubtful we’ll hear from him again on this subject in the near future. But it is useful to compare this furor to a previous disagreement between another chief of staff and the politicians of his day.

Like Eisenkot, Dan Shomron was also a low-profile commander, shying away from political intrigue and sticking to his day job. In 1987, when during his term at the IDF’s helm, the first Intifada broke out, he angered the politicians on the right by saying “there is no military solution to the intifada.” They accused him of politicizing the issue and shirking his duty to propose military solutions to the challenges facing Israel. In the early 1990s the right wing came out with the slogan, “Let the IDF win,” as if a cabal of leftist politicians and generals was somehow preventing the brave soldiers from solving Israel’s problems.

But just like Eisenkot, Shomron was simply stating the obvious. While the first intifada, at that point, consisted mainly of stone-throwing and general rioting, Shomron just pointed out to the politicians that unless they were about to order the IDF to shoot and kill every Palestinian picking up a stone, which they weren’t and which he wouldn’t have agreed to do anyway, they would at some point have to address the motivation behind the stone. And in a democracy, that cannot be the job of the military.

Eisenkot wasn’t even going that far. He wasn’t talking about a solution that is not up to him. Just stating the obvious – that shooting teenagers with scissors certainly isn’t the way to go about anything. But in 29 years, it seems Israel’s politicians have learned nothing. Blame the Palestinians, blame the media, blame the leftists, blame the generals. Just don’t face reality.