"It’s not only a soldier’s right to disobey an order that is patently illegal, it’s his obligation. That is my demand as chief of staff," declared the Israel Defense Forces' Gadi Eisenkot, at a conference on Tuesday in memory of former chief-of-staff Amnon Lipkin-Shahak.
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Referring to the actions of Breaking the Silence – the left-wing, anti-occupation NGO of former soldiers – Eisenkot said, “We expect from our soldiers that our values be adhered to in real-time, and not that they break their silence three years later at some conference. One has to carry out legitimate missions in a manner that is compatible with the IDF spirit: Where this does not occur, it’s a soldier’s obligation, not his right, to desist.”
At the memorial event, organized by the Interdisciplinary Center Herzliya, Eisenkot related how, after assuming his post after Operation Protective Edge in the Gaza Strip in 2014, he instructed the military advocate general to meet members of Breaking the Silence in order to hear their claims. "The MAG told me that he listened to them," said Eisenkot. "We now want to deal with these things since it will make the IDF better.”
Last July, the Military Police’s investigative branch launched an investigation into several incidents that occurred during the operation, as reported by Breaking the Silence. According to the IDF's Bamahane magazine, the army's legal branch was specifically examining eight testimonies. The army has not offered any details regarding the incidents in question, but a report by Breaking the Silence in May intimated that it is possible that international laws had been violated.
Eisenkot also referred on Tuesday to operations under way to locate Hamas tunnels leading from Gaza into Israel, which he called the IDF's top priority.
“We’re making great efforts, most of them hidden from the public eye," he commented, "but anyone in the vicinity can see almost 100 pieces of heavy equipment working there. We have the most advanced capabilities in the world but it’s still a big challenge. We don’t let the fact that it’s quiet in the south deceive us.”
Eisenkot also responded to a story that aired this week on TV Channel 2 news, according to which Education Minister Naftali Bennett had recommended a pre-emptive strike to address the threat posed by the tunnels – a suggestion apparently rejected by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Moshe Ya'alon.
“The question of whether this is the correct move or not should be discussed in the appropriate forums for such discussions,” the chief of staff said in response.
He also referred to tensions and terror in the West Bank, saying that the IDF is responsible for providing security and also a sense of security there “without making excuses.” From conversations with terrorists who had been arrested, Eisenkot added, it appeared that the main motivation for their action was incitement in the media, as well as the feeling that their actions would advance the Palestinian cause.
The army has found the terror attacks are not being carried out by Palestinians with work permits or members of their families: Of the 120,000 who have work permits, the chief of staff noted, only one had carried out an attack (in Modi’in, although another Palestinian with a work permit carried an attack in an industrial zone near Ariel and Palestinian with a residence permit carried out an attack at Beit Panorama in Tel Aviv).
“Those 120,000 laborers impact 500,000-600,000 others in the West Bank. They provide for their families, they bring hope. It’s not hard to imagine what would happen if they were all under closure and banned from working,” he said.
An examination of the families of people with work permits revealed that they are also not involved in terror incidents, the only exception being a minor who carried out the stabbing attack in Otniel, in which Daphna Meir was murdered.
“With all the desire to do something after an attack," Eisenkot said, "one has to be focused and to differentiate between terrorism and the entire population. I don’t mean in isolated cases, but as a concept. Someone who is unfamiliar with reality on the ground is calling for a repeat of the 2002 Operation Defensive Shield from the second intifada. Anyone who is familiar with reality knows that things have changed since then. The IDF has complete freedom of action now.”
The chief of staff was referring to a comment made in November by Minister Bennett, in an interview with Army Radio, to the effect that the only solution to the wave of terror was a second Operation Defensive Shield.