IDF Deputy Chief of Staff Yair Golan, who sparked a controversy with remarks on Wednesday evening, the start of Holocaust Remembrance Day, in which he was perceived as comparing Israel to pre-Holocaust Germany, is not one who shrinks away from expressing what’s on his mind.
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His outspoken comments have attracted considerable attention over the past sixth months alone. In one instance, he was quoted as saying: “I am not convinced that the fact that we gave Hamas and other organizations a number of years to fire at the residents living near the Israeli border with Gaza is a great reason for pride.”
In connection with his remarks Wednesday evening, which were made at the Massua Institute for the Study of the Holocaust at Kibbutz Tel Yitzhak, Golan published a clarification on Thursday, saying he “did not intend to compare the IDF and Israel to what happened in Germany 70 years ago. Such a comparison would be absurd and baseless.” The clarification added that the Israel Defense Forces is a moral army that respects purity of arms and human dignity and “there was no intention to create any such parallel or to criticize the political echelons.”
In his speech at the Massua Institute, Golan said: “If there’s something that frightens me about remembering the Holocaust, it’s the recognition of the revolting processes that occurred in Europe in general, and particularly in Germany, back then — 70, 80 and 90 years ago — and finding signs of them here among us today in 2016.”
Golan, who grew up in a military household, is perceived as an independent and opinionated officer. Those who have been under his command in the past describe him as stubborn and even austere at times. His father was a career officer who rose to the rank of colonel. Golan is an avid reader and history buff, particularly when it comes to World War II and the London Blitz. Early on in his time in the IDF, he was pegged as someone who would have an extended army career.
In 1980, he was drafted into the paratroopers, where he assumed a number of different positions, including service as a commander of Battalion 890, the same battalion that Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon, who has high personal regard for Golan, once headed. In the aftermath of the Holocaust Remembrance Day controversy, Ya’alon issued a statement expressing full confidence in Golan. “The job of every IDF commander, certainly a senior commander, does not end with leading soldiers into battle, but obliges him to map out values with the help of a compass as well as their consciences,” the defense minister wrote in a Facebook post.
The embrace that Golan has enjoyed from those on the left of the political spectrum has surprised many who have known him for years. He is described by his subordinates as courageous and direct, but also militant and aggressive — someone who didn’t hold back criticism on planning or execution of military operations that he found to be lacking.
“I remember a professional, tough man of values who was absolutely determined in his military activity,” said Avi Buskila, the director of the left-wing organization Peace Now, who was a company commander in the Nahal brigade under Golan. “In the face of most of the things that we did during that period,” he noted, “I don’t remember any kind of quality on his part of what those on the right like to call ‘spinelessness,’ or being a ‘bleeding heart.’ He’s not at all an outspokenly critical person, but he is scathing when it comes to Israel’s security. It was clear with him. In many instances, he was in a position of hardening stances.”
As Nahal brigade commander, Golan led the IDF’s first operations in the West Bank with the outbreak of the second intifada in 2000. Prior to that, in 1997, he was wounded in clashes with Hezbollah.
While he was commander of the West Bank division, foreign television crews documented IDF soldiers in Nablus making use of the so-called “neighbor procedure,” in which Palestinian civilians were used as human shields. A military police investigation revealed that it was Golan who had approved five instances in which the tactic was used. The IDF chief of staff at the time, Gabi Ashkenazi, reprimanded Golan, and as a result his promotion was delayed.
In 2008, he was promoted to major general. As commander of the Northern Command in 2013, against the backdrop of the civil war in Syria, it was Golan who authorized the treatment of the first seven wounded Syrians in Israeli hospitals as a humanitarian gesture. Although the army initially described it as an isolated act, more than 2,000 wounded Syrians have be allowed into Israel for treatment since then.