Opinion |

Israel's First Gay Major General Is No Cause for Pride

Some may celebrate the fact that Sharon Afek, the military advocate general, is the first openly gay person to achieve the rank of IDF major general – but his unit has done some shameful things

Yoana Gonen
Yoana Gonen
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Maj.-Gen. Sharon Afek.
Maj.-Gen. Sharon Afek.Credit: Moti Milrod
Yoana Gonen
Yoana Gonen

There’s no bad without good in the cosmos, so the systematic exclusion of certain groups comes with a special bonus: the eternal possibility of being the “first (fill-in-the-blank) in the (fill-in-the-blank),” as an expression of normalization and acceptance. Thus there came into the world “the first Hebrew thief” (identity unknown) and “the first woman to serve as head of state in a country with a Muslim majority” (Benazir Bhutto, Pakistan, 1988). Earlier this month, there was a new addition to the list: “the first out-of-the-closet, gay major general in the Israeli army” – Military Advocate General Sharon Afek.

By an ironic coincidence, a few days after the first openly gay major general’s elevation to that rank, Elor Azaria, the soldier who shot an already critically wounded Palestinian terrorist to death in Hebron in 2016, was released from military prison. It was Afek who decided not to make do with a disciplinary hearing but to try Azaria on the relatively serious charge of manslaughter. In an interview with the journal of the Israel Bar Association a year ago, he modestly described his decision as “a judicial and moral milestone in the history of military law It is a statement that gives de facto expression to such values of the army as purity of arms” (a term referring to the avoidance of war crimes).

Many people around me, both LGBT and straight, celebrated the announcement of Afek’s promotion to major general. It’s doubtful whether those people would have been as jubilant if Elor Azaria had come out of the closet and become “the first gay Israeli to be convicted of killing an incapacitated terrorist.” But the line that separates pride from shame, in this case, is thinner than the thong bikini of a drag queen on a float at a pride parade.

The Military Advocate General’s unit provides legal counsel to the army. In practice, of course, this boils down to giving legal cover to a range of atrocities and killings perpetrated by soldiers. In this sense, placing Azaria on trial was also part of the whitewashing of the occupation: offering a veneer of “lawfulness” and “morality” that legitimizes the continued military rule over millions of people who are deprived of their rights.

Azaria killed one wounded Palestinian, but the MAG’s unit has, over the years, legalized the killing of hundreds of innocent Palestinians. For example, in December 2008, Israel Air Force pilots fired missiles on the graduation ceremony at the police academy in the Gaza Strip, killing 89 new police officers (i.e., not fighters nor terrorists). That same unit gave legal validation to the bombing, which in the view of many jurists contravened the rules of international law.

In an investigative report in Haaretz by Yotam Feldman and Uri Blau about the way the MAG’s unit helped the Israel Defense Forces to harness the law in order to legalize the attacks on civilians in the IDF’s 2008-2009 Operation Cast Lead in the Gaza Strip, Prof. Orna Ben-Naftali, an expert in international law, stated, “Instead of legal advice and international humanitarian law minimizing suffering, they legitimize any use of force.” She added: “It is a reasonable assumption that the legal advice [of the MAG’s unit] validates offenses while ignoring the context in which they are perpetrated.”

More than a thousand Gaza residents, most of them civilians, among them hundreds of children, were killed in Cast Lead. The high number of civilian casualties can be attributed at least in part to the MAG’s approval of the relaxation of the rules of engagement.

Sharon Afek began his career in the military prosecution in the international law department, which granted the generous go-ahead for the shelling of Gazan civilians. Subsequently, his assignments included serving as IAF counsel during the Second Lebanon War and as deputy to Avichai Mendelblit, who is today the attorney general, when Mendelblit was the military advocate general. Afek was appointed as MAG in August 2015, exactly one year after the conclusion of Operation Protective Edge, another mass-casualty IDF assault on Gaza.

Despite Afek’s claim that the decision to try Elor Azaria was evidence of Israel’s “purity of arms,” until mid-2017 only one case out of hundreds of complaints about breaches of international law during Operation Protective Edge came to trial under his command. In that case, three infantry soldiers were convicted of looting 2,420 shekels (about $635). Purity of arms turns out to be a relative matter.

One of the cases that Afek’s immediate predecessor, Maj. Gen. Danny Efroni, left for him to deal with is that of “Black Friday” in Rafah, August 1, 2014, when soldiers responded with hundreds of shells and bombs following the abduction of Lt. Hadar Goldin, and brought about the death of dozens of innocent civilians.

In June 2017, the Haaretz editorial stated that “Military Advocate General Brig. Gen. Sharon Afek has not yet decided whether the events of ‘Black Friday’ warrant a criminal investigation, even though three years have passed and hundreds of hours have been invested in review. That is highly peculiar, in light of the fact that it is these events that have raised the greatest number of questions about the proportionality of force employed by the army, which led to a large number of civilian deaths.”

Even the state comptroller, in an otherwise anemic report that his office published two months ago, was critical of this delay, noting, “The number of open cases concerning which the mechanism has not yet completed its work during the lengthy period since the conclusion of Operation Protective Edge is inappropriately large, and is liable to undermine the possibility of a future investigation.”

That investigation has yet to be launched, and probably never will be – but let us not see this as an indication that Israel is not a country of justice and progress and human rights. After all, in the meantime, “Brig. Gen. Sharon Afek” has become Maj. Gen. Afek, the first gay of that rank, liberator of the slaves and smasher of the glass ceiling.

Army service and parenthood have always been at the center of the struggle for equality of the Israeli LGBT community, representing a yearning for integration and for purification from the sin of abnormality. Afek himself spoke in these terms in his interview with the Bar Association journal mentioned above. “Even today, in 2017,” he said, “we encounter manifestations of ignorance and hatred of the other. It’s important to me for those young [LGBT] men and women to know that there are no glass ceilings in the IDF that limit them The IDF is the people’s army, it embraces everyone who wants to contribute and to develop in it.”

But as in the well-known saying about the Jewish people and Shabbat, no less than the army has “purified” gays, gays have purified the army – and Israeli public diplomacy is well known for its use of the LGBT community to present the country as a democracy where human rights flourish. Hence, it’s probably particularly appropriate for the first openly gay major general to be the military advocate general, who, by means of a two-pronged operation (a common military term, I presume), is capable of granting a stamp of legitimacy to military actions, both as a jurist and as a gay man. For me, at least, it’s no cause for pride.

Unlike many enlightened Israelis, who celebrated Afek’s promotion, the residents of the Gaza Strip probably care less about the fact that the person who issues legal authorizations for shelling and killing them is not straight but gay. That is so homophobic!

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