Analysis

The IDF's Ethical Code Moves Further Away From Israeli Public Opinion

Overall, the General Staff is satisfied with its handling of the Hebron shooting; its main concern is whether its policies are actually being enforced in the field.

Protesters at a Beit Shemesh rally in support of the soldier who killed a Palestinian assailant in Hebron, March 29, 2016.
Olivier Fitoussi

The incident of the soldier who shot a wounded terrorist in Hebron is still sending shock waves through the army and the political system two weeks after it occurred.

The Israel Defense Forces’ top brass isn’t yet certain that its message about the proper rules of engagement has actually reached every last soldier. And on the political front, the gap is widening between Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon and the rest of the coalition – including Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who hasn’t backed the army’s policy and has sent conflicting messages, at best, about the soldier’s conduct.

The General Staff still believes it made the right decision by taking immediate disciplinary action against the soldier and opening a Military Police investigation. It also believes the condemnation of the shooting issued by the IDF Spokesperson’s Office on behalf of Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Gadi Eisenkot was necessary to prevent renewed escalation in the West Bank just as the violence was finally starting to ebb.

But in retrospect, some senior officers question the wisdom of a few demonstrative steps against the soldier that outraged both public opinion and right-wing politicians. These include the wording of the initial press statement, the warning that he could be charged with murder (though this is standard prosecution practice) and the fact that he was brought to his first three court hearings in handcuffs. A few years ago, the prosecution sought to scrap the rule requiring handcuffs, but the Military Police, which is responsible for preventing detainees from escaping, refused.

Sgt. E., who shot the subdued Palestinian assailant to death in Hebron on March 24, 2016, in the courtroom on April 1, 2016.
David Bachar

Overall, however, the General Staff is satisfied with its handling of the incident; its main concern is whether its policies are actually being enforced in the field. The incident in Hebron, like the wars over the place of religion in the IDF, exemplifies a chronic problem that arises whenever the army rubs up against civilian society. What worries the top brass is that midlevel officers may be uncertain how to respond when their soldiers violate the rules, or when they come under pressure from outside parties.

The IDF’s own conduct contributes to the problem. Though Eisenkot sent a letter to all soldiers and officers this week discussing the rules of engagement and the IDF’s values, Haaretz discovered that in some officers’ courses and combat units, the letter was discussed only belatedly. Moreover, the army didn’t promptly disseminate the conclusions of its operational inquiry into the incident to all units, didn’t call meetings for commanders over the issue (as Ya’alon did over similar incidents when he was chief of staff during the second intifada) and didn’t have the chief education officer speak publicly about it.

For the first week, the incident was dealt with at the highest level – defense minister, chief of staff, military advocate general and IDF spokesperson – but not as a command crisis that necessitated serious educational efforts to reach every last soldier. Thus messages from the field are still mixed. Young officers from several elite units told their parents that “the rules are clear to all soldiers the fighters understand that the soldier erred.” But one senior officer who spoke with cadets at a course was shocked to discover that many rejected Eisenkot’s approach.

The military prosecution fought hard to prevent the soldier from being transferred to “open” arrest on his base, as it wanted to underscore the gravity of the suspicions against him. But both a lower court and an appeals court ruled otherwise.

The defense is apparently putting out feelers about a plea bargain that would reduce the charge against the soldier from manslaughter to exceeding his authority, arguing that a long trial would embarrass the army. But as of midweek, the prosecution seemed determined to stick with manslaughter.

Murder charges are no longer under consideration, mainly due to Supreme Court precedents which show the justices will generally uphold a murder conviction only if the perpetrator’s criminal intent was clear. The fact that the soldier fired only one shot, very soon after the terrorist was taken down, would make his criminal intent hard to prove.

Military Advocate General Brig. Gen. Sharon Afek spoke publicly this week for the first time since taking office last fall. At an Israel Bar Association conference in Eilat, he promised “not to make decisions according to public opinion polls,” charged that “the conversation on social media is harming the IDF and its commanders” and warned against people “who presume to dictate how the [military] system should act.” 

A photo distributed on Likud's WhatsApp group calling for Defense Minister Moshe Ya'alon's political assassination.
Screenshot

Ya’alon was even blunter. “The IDF’s rules of engagement must be set by the chief of staff, not by gang leaders,” he said on Tuesday. He didn’t specify whether he meant his political rivals – Education Minister Naftali Bennett (Habayit Hayehudi) and opposition MK Avigdor Lieberman (Yisrael Beiteinu) – or right-wing extremists groups like Lehava. But he is aware of the political price he’s paying both for his position on this case and his backing of Eisenkot on several other issues that upset the religious right in recent months.

Aside from the chasm between the General Staff and field units and the difficulty of upholding the army’s rules as public opinion grows more extreme, Eisenkot and other senior officers are worried about the fact that politicians are using the IDF as a tool with which to batter each other and win the public’s love. Under Eisenkot’s leadership, the army has taken a particularly expansive view of the state’s ethos and the IDF’s role in preserving it. Thus the more politicians pander to the voters’ desires – the way Netanyahu fell into line behind Bennett is a good example – the more determined the IDF seems to be to present an independent stance.

On operational issues, that approach is self-evident. But the incident in Hebron has sharpened the dispute over basic values, and that dispute must be conducted without undermining public faith in the IDF – something Eisenkot views as critical to the army’s functioning.

Col. Yael Hess of the Education Corps said in a lecture at Tel Aviv University Wednesday night that soldiers seem to have trouble leaving their politics at home, and therefore have trouble understanding the army’s values. Inter alia, she warned that soldiers are constantly exposed to news content provided by right-wing websites, which bypass the high command and seek to inculcate soldiers with a very different set of values.