Amid Hebron Shooting Controversy, IDF Chief-of-staff to Highlight Army Values in Special Letter to Soldiers

IDF concerned over incident's implications on combat units and the influence of social media rhetoric on IDF combat values.

A demonstration in support of the detained soldier outside the court where his hearing was taking place, March 29, 2016.
Ilan Assayag

Israel Defense Force Chief of Staff Gadi Eisenkot will be distributing a special letter to all IDF soldiers in the wake of the shooting of a Palestinian terrorist in Hebron last Thursday by an IDF medic. Film footage from the incident appears to show that the terrorist, who died in the incident, was on the ground and subdued when he was shot. 

The text of the message is currently being drafted, but Eisenkot intends to use his message to highlight the IDF's binding open-fire regulations, the IDF's values and the importance that he attaches to maintaining them. He also intends to underline the need to avoid controversies of a political nature within the army and highlight the lessons that arise from the Hebron incident. 

IDF officials have been concerned over the implications of the incident on the army's combat units, the impact in army ranks of the political controversy surrounding the handling of the soldier's case and the influence of the blatant and violent rhetoric on the social networks regarding IDF combat values. Many leading politicians have condemned the soldier's actions while others have cautioned against jumping to conclusions or have expressed backing for the soldier.

Defense Minister Moshe Ya'alon as well as Eisenkot and the head of the IDF Central Command, Maj. Gen. Roni Numa, are maintaining their position that the case has been handled as it should have been. They believe there was a need, after the initial operational inquiry immediately following Thursday's incident, to make it clear that the army roundly rejects such conduct on a soldier's part and that it is necessary to deal with such a serious departure from binding regulations.

In addition to Eisenkot's missive, the Education Corps will develop detailed lesson plans in the wake of the case, enabling IDF commanders to use the material for the instruction of soldiers in the units. Although there had been prior instances involving major controversy over open-fire regulations and backing for soldiers, particularly relating to Palestinians in the territories, the General Staff headquarters is finding it more difficult currently to separate how the army deals with this and what happens in civilian society.

In the past, during the first and second intifadas, such implications were seen notably in reserve units. The regular units were relatively isolated from what was happening on the outside, and it was only when soldiers went home on breaks that the political controversy intensified. Now, however, because every soldier has a smartphone and regularly follows the news, particularly the discourse on the social networks, such a separation has become impossible.

The fact that politicians are making blatant comments on the Hebron case -- in a few instances  attacking the IDF chief of staff and military prosecutor's office directly -- also influences the debate within army ranks. Members of the General Staff are of the view that there is an immediate need to define for soldiers and commanders what the policy is on the use of force and on opening fire. This is in an effort to prevent the storm on Facebook and news website comments from affecting the soldiers in a way that, in extreme circumstances, could drift to protests in the units, a refusal to obey orders or other violations of rules in the course of incidents involving terrorists.

Meanwhile, a military court extended the soldier's detainment by two days, ruling that there was "reasonable suspicion" in the case, as hundreds of demonstrators rallied in support of the soldier outside the court.