Lethal Rules of Engagement

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A firing zone in the Jordan Valley.
A firing zone in the Jordan Valley.Credit: Meged Gozani

A friendly fire incident in the Jordan Valley Wednesday night, in which two army officers from the Egoz unit – Ofek Aharon, 28, and Itamar Elharar, 26 – were killed was an extremely grave foul-up. It ought to set off alarm bells about the Israel Defense Forces’ current rules of engagement, as well as about the way decisions on changing these rules are made.

According to the head of the army’s Central Command, Maj. Gen. Yehuda Fuchs, an initial inquiry found that the two officers and other soldiers had set out to search for military equipment they suspected had been stolen near the Nabi Musa training base. During the search, which was not coordinated with the other commanders and soldiers in the field, they thought they saw a suspicious figure, who later turned out to be another officer from the same unit. That officer thought he was under attack from the two. The group of four soldiers shouted at him, and gunfire was exchanged. It’s not yet clear who shot first.

In November, the IDF loosened its rules of engagement to allow soldiers to shoot suspected arms thieves, even in military training areas, after following the procedure for arresting suspects. Earlier, this had been permitted only on bases or in areas that had been declared closed military zones. Following Wednesday’s accident, IDF Spokesman Ran Kochav told Army Radio that the inquiry into the incident will also look into whether this change in the rules caused it.

The change in the rules of engagement, like the general atmosphere that expects soldiers to hunt thieves at night, didn’t emerge out of nowhere. For months, right-wing organizations had waged a public campaign against the old rules of engagement, charging that they were too soft and tied soldiers’ hands, including against thieves of military equipment. By deciding to finally change the rules, the IDF, with encouragement from Prime Minister Naftali Bennett, gave in to irresponsible, populist talk.

Therefore, the inquiry into the incident does indeed need to include tough questions about the decision, made under pressure from right-wing politicians and activists, to let soldiers chase and shoot at thieves in military training areas. Whatever the results of the inquiry are, this tragic incident shows the danger of the mood that encourages quick trigger fingers. It’s not just civilians in the vicinity of training bases who are likely to be hurt, but also the soldiers themselves.

The above article is Haaretz's lead editorial, as published in the Hebrew and English newspapers in Israel.

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