There was something shocking about the Friday night TV interviews with the family of fallen Border Policeman Barel Hadaria Shmueli. Not only because of the media personnel shoving microphones in front of the grieving parents before the end of the traditional seven-day shivah mourning period (that taboo was broken almost 30 years ago), and not because their son’s death was leveraged for a political statement (this also happened during the Yom Kippur War, the two Lebanon wars and the 2014 Gaza war).
The problem lay in the parents’ language: harsh, verging on violent, almost exactly echoing the inciting tone used by some supporters of opposition leader and former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on social media, including Likud WhatsApp groups. Barel’s mother, Nitza Shmueli, claimed that Prime Minister Naftali Bennett “feels like a traitor,” accusing him of “murdering the State of Israel,” no less.
The rules of the game in Israel allow bereaved parents to say anything, in any manner. But these remarks are not made in a vacuum. The anger over a tactical error that allowed a Hamas militant to approach a soldier and shoot him in the head at point-blank range added to the humiliation that many felt as a result of images of the incident, taken and shared online by Hamas militants. This led to the myth that soldiers’ hands are tied in confronting Hamas, even though at every violent demonstration along the Gaza border fence the Israel Defense Forces deploys army snipers, not to mention riot dispersal measures. The rage on social media was exploited by a political campaign seeking Bennett’s head.
That campaign depicts the prime minister as a disaster for Israeli security, even though his predecessor did not find a diplomatic or military solution for the conflict in the Gaza Strip during his 12 years in office. Netanyahu even permitted, for nearly three years, monthly cash payments to the Strip from Qatar. At a protest in Tel Aviv last week in the wake of Shmueli’s death, there were calls for Bennett’s murder. After Netanyahu’s departure this year the public mood appeared to cool down somewhat, but clearly it doesn’t take much to heat things up again.
Compared to Bennett, the IDF is a secondary target, but since it’s under the jurisdiction of the main one, it too has come under heavy fire. The head of the army’s Southern Command, Maj. Gen. Eliezer Toledano, went to the family’s home Friday to present the findings of the military investigation into the incident. He was accompanied by the division and brigade commanders. It was Toledano’s third meeting with friends and relatives since Shmueli was shot and critically injured, on August 21, and at all of them he faced harsh personal attacks. The brigade commander was also a target.
Bennett is aware of this situation but has made no public comments, apart from a few feeble remarks at an IDF General Staff meeting Thursday. Perhaps President Isaac Herzog will find some time for this topic in the traditional Rosh Hashanah media interviews. Most cabinet members have remained silent. The only one to say something clearly was Defense Minister Benny Gantz. The impression is that for many of the country’s leaders, the incident is the Southern Command’s and the Gaza Division’s problem. Commanders on the ground screwed up? Let them deal with it on their own.
The problem is that what happens along the Gaza border doesn’t stay there, but reflects badly on other circles as well. These incidents erode the hierarchy and motivation within the IDF, harming its relationship with civilians. Combat soldiers don’t wait for rules of engagement as dictated by the general staff. They are exposed to messages on social media that accuse their commanders of abandoning them, calling on them to disobey orders. The commotion affects officers’ families, who pressure them to leave assignments in which their chances of running afoul of the law are high. Some will refuse to bear for long the treatment meted out to Toledano and his officers.
I’ve heard similar sentiments in recent years from the head of Southern Command and the Gaza Division, as well as from the heads of Northern and Central Commands: Errors are part and parcel of the military profession, just like any other profession. The difference is that mistakes in the military lead to loss of life. The army is well aware of this and of the fact that officers may pay for these with the ending of their career. This is part of the rules of the game among the senior ranks. What should not be part of these rules is the extremist campaign, fueled by politicians and frequently stoked by heated media coverage.
Since the incident during which Shmueli was critically wounded, two weeks ago, its has been compared to Elor Azaria’s fatal shooting of an incapacitated assailant in 2016. The difference is that the Azaria affair played out over the duration of his trial, about two years. Here, the developments ostensibly ended with the military investigation. Shmueli’s family is calling for an external commission of inquiry, but that is unlikely.
Media interest will wane soon, in favor of other incidents and arguments. And yet, some long-term damage may have been done. First, to trust within the military chain of command and between the army and the public. Second, this incident has further consolidated the distorted value system that has become entrenched, according to which the life of a soldier is more valuable than that of an Israeli civilian. It used to be the exact opposite. Israelis understood that sometimes, in order to protect civilians, the IDF had to take the hit. Now, a local mischance that led to a tragic outcome is a pretext for demanding a commission of inquiry and for declaring the prime minister a traitor.
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Ostensibly, it’s good that the public does not accept the death of a combatant resulting from an error or mishap. But when the furor is so extreme, and the debate reaches such absurd lengths, it could lead to a real tying of the army’s hands. The political and military leadership could become so paralyzed out of fear of erring and causing fatalities that they won’t deploy ground forces even when they are urgently needed.