Israeli Army Chief Visits Family of Soldier Killed on Gaza Border as Criticism Grows

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Israeli army chief Aviv Kochavi, in June.
Israeli army chief Aviv Kochavi, in June.Credit: Moti Milrod

Israeli military chief Aviv Kochavi visited on Sunday the family of army sharpshooter Barel Hadaria Shmueli, who was killed on the Gaza border last week, though the family has levelled harsh criticism against the army since Shmueli was shot and has rejected the findings of the army’s investigation of the incident.

On Saturday, Kochavi sent a letter of support to IDF commanders, saying: “A society that does not back its soldiers and commanders, even when they err, will discover that there is no one who will fight for it.”

Kochavi also addressed the findings of the IDF investigation, which uncovered failures in the deployment of the troops in the incident in which Shmueli was shot, writing: “Decisions are usually made with uncertainty and quickly, and therefore mistakes are always possible. It is our obligation to investigate thoroughly, reach the truth and learn lessons, but for mistakes in judgement in the battlefield we don’t blame and we don’t punish.”

Responding publically for the first time since the incident ignited criticism of the government and the army, Prime Minister Naftali Bennett told Kochavi and senior officers in the Southern Command Saturday night that his “support for IDF commanders is full and absolute.” Bennett added that for Shmueli’s family, who harshly reprimanded the prime minister, “anything is allowed,” but called on politicians “not to touch the army and its commanders.”

Staff Sgt. Barel Hadaria Shmueli.Credit: Israel Police

Hinting at protests against him over the Gaza incident, Bennett said Sunday at a cabinet meeting, "There are those who are trying to use the IDF as a tool to promote cynical political goals... It's inappropriate. Stop it."

President Isaac Herzog, who paid his condolences to Shmueli’s family, said: “Barel fell as a hero, and a dispute like the one that broke out last week around his death will please our enemies. The IDF commanders will continue to lead its soldiers in the future as it has always done – with professionalism, values and the greatest responsibility. Without them there will be no protection for our children, ourselves and our country.”

The IDF investigation also addressed the criticism the army received regarding its rules of engagement, which detractors say 'tied the hands' of the soldiers at the scene. It stated that “No deficiencies were found regarding orders, which were not changed at any point before the events or during them. The Chief of the General Staff has determined that the orders allowed for carrying out the operational mission included no life-threatening risks.” According to the military, the combat soldiers employed “significant fire in response to the riots.”

People chant slogans and wave flags of Israel and the Likud party during an anti-government demonstration following the death of Barel Hadaria Shmueli, in Tel Aviv, last week.Credit: AHMAD GHARABLI - AFP

Staff Sgt. Shmueli, 21, was a sharpshooter in the Border Police undercover unit. He was injured in riots that broke out at the Gaza border fence on August 21. Hundreds of Palestinians approached the fence, behind which soldiers and police were deployed. One of the rioters shot through a slit in the wall at Shmueli’s position. He was severely injured and died of his wounds on Monday. His parents blamed Bennett for their son's death, a sentiment shared by hundreds of Likud activists who attended demonstrations where participants shouted “untie the soldiers’ hands."

According to the IDF investigation, the field of vision at Shmueli’s post was limited, meaning that sharpshooters could not see what was happening below and alongside them. In fact, back in 2019, soldiers warned their superiors in the Southern Command of these conditions. The investigation found that the preparations for the riots were “thorough and comprehensive,” but “it would have been proper to deploy and operate the forces differently from the moment the violent crowd reached the protective wall.” Rejecting the investigation's findings, Shmueli’s family protested against the fact no commanders would face any consequences.

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