Israeli Army Report Warned: Relaxing Open-fire Rules Will Lead to Casualties

The death of two Israeli military commanders has prompted renewed debate on open-fire regulations, which were eased last November despite opposition from an internal IDF report in 2020

Amos Harel
Amos Harel
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A military firing zone in Israel's south.
A military firing zone in Israel's south.Credit: Eliyahu Hershkovitz
Amos Harel
Amos Harel

Changes to open-fire rules may lead to the misuse of weapons and unnecessary casualties, an internal report compiled by Israel's defense establishment warned a year ago.

The report was circulated among senior security and police officials in August 2020, but the friendly fire incident which left two Israeli military commanders, Maj. Ofek Aharon and Maj. Itamar Elharar, dead last Wednesday has prompted renewed attention.

Four years ago, following public pressure that included complaints from reservists and criticism of the army's inability to prevent gun theft, the army revised its guidelines to allow immediate shooting at the legs of suspected thieves if caught within Israeli Defense Forces bases.

The guidelines also applied to the stealing of non-combat military equipment, and the army later discussed expanding the order to suspects caught stealing weapons in unfenced firing zones. Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Aviv Kochavi approved the changes last November, despite opposition by officers who were asked to review it.

At the time, the military presented the reforms to the media as an improvement in the tools available to the soldiers, and received the backing of politicians.

Some publications mistakenly claimed that the revision allowed directly shooting at suspected thieves without first performing an arrest procedure. The ambiguity may have come from the fact that the guidelines were classified, but it also could've stemmed from the IDF feeling at ease in marketing a tougher hand against the thieves to the public – including the use of weapons against them.

Since the deadly incident on Wednesday, public debate has been ongoing over whether the change in open-fire rules contributed to the killing of the two officers. The IDF denies any connection with the changes, and the Chief of Central Command Maj. Gen. Yehuda Fuchs has argued in interviews after the accident that the friendly fire was not the result of the change in protocol.

Based on descriptions of the incident, other military sources said that said it is clear that the officers' state of mind – as in a manhunt for potential thieves – contributed to a lax attitude to pulling the trigger.

The report, which was signed by the Comptroller of the Defense System, Brigadier General (res.) Eitan Dahan and the Comptroller of the Ministry of Internal Security, David Cohen, deals with the issue of weapons theft from IDF base, in particular from those in the Tze'elim area of the Negev.

It was published after the initial decision was originally formulated regarding bases, but while there was still an internal dispute among the military and police regarding the extension of permits for the firing ranges, which are available to civilians, from innocent travelers to gun thieves.

In excerpts from the report, which was obtained by Haaretz, Dahan and Cohen write that "there is no proof that the expansion of the open-fire regulations helped the IDF counter violations of the law. On the contrary, there is a danger that the expansion of powers will increase the use of weapons in situations where it is forbidden."

"The investigation emphasizes the danger that an unskilled force will come into contact with a highly hostile and violent population,” the report said.

“Such a situation could lead to the use of firearms and even injury and killing on both sides (army forces and civilians violating the law),” noted the report, adding open-fire provision for the Tze'elim area offered a proportional solution to the theft issue.

Although the report mainly addresses the possibility of incorrect or excessive shooting at civilians, it now reads almost as an advanced warning of what tragically materialized at the Nabi Musa military base on Wednesday night: two troops, believing they had identified weapons thieves, opened fire without coordination or justification, resulting in the unnecessary deaths of two outstanding officers.

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