Former Israel Defense Forces Chief of Staff Benny Gantz, who recently announced a bid for the Knesset as head of the Hosen L’Yisrael party, has come under criticism from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud party over the death of an Israeli Druze border policeman, Madhat Yusuf, during the second intifada.
Yusuf was shot and bled to death at Joseph’s Tomb near the West Bank town of Nablus in 2000, at the beginning of the second intifada. He died after the army failed to arrange prompt evacuation over a period of several hours. Gantz was the commander of the army’s West Bank division at the time.
Netanyahu himself defended Gantz on several occasions following the incident. Investigations of the mishap found the military brass innocent of exercising faulty judgment in the case.
But last week, Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan tweeted that Gantz was part of a group of commanders that Erdan said “had turned its back” on Yusuf and failed to do everything possible to save his life.
The tweet was issued after Gantz criticized the controversial nation-state law in the face of Druze community protests about the law.
Critics of the law say that it puts the Druze and other non-Jewish Israelis in the position of second-class citizens. The criticism has been particularly relevant to the Druze community because they, unlike most other Israeli Arabs, serve in the army in large numbers.
For his part, Likud Knesset member Avi Dichter, tweeted last week about Gantz that “the cloud of the late Madhat Yusuf, an army combat soldier from the Druze community who bled to death at Joseph’s tomb, hovers over his head as commander of the Judea and Samaria [West Bank] division at on that day…”
The has been surprise over Dichter's statements, given that he was the director of the Shin Bet security service at the time of the incident and was involved in deliberations over Yusuf's rescue.
Israeli lawyer Gonen Ben-Yitzhak, who was based in the West Bank district of Ramallah during the second intifada, called out Dichter's evasion of responsibility – pointing out that the Shin Bet's assessment during the incident held "critical weight," and was a major factor in the decisions that were made. "Things need to be stated honestly," he added.
Madhat Yusuf was killed on October 1, 2000, the third day of the second intifada. The incident occured after thousands of Palestinian demonstrators reached Joseph’s tomb following funerals of Palestinians who were killed the previous day in clashes with the Israeli army. Some of the demonstrators were armed. They opened fire, threw Molotov cocktails and attempted to set fire to the tomb complex. Yousef, one of 12 Israelis guarding the tomb, was critically wounded by a bullet in his neck.
The military brass was faced with two options – either try to send a rescue team or rely on cooperation with the Palestinians to have Yusuf evacuated. The decision to cooperate with Palestinians for the evacuation was seen by the Israeli public as a failing after Yousef bled to death.
Lt. Col. Alex Haikov, commander of the Israeli coordination and liaison office in Nablus at the time, provided a 40-page account of events in which he noted the Shin Bet’s role in the decision-making. “According to those [involved] in the incident, the Shin Bet believed that it was right to continue relying on a rescue operation by the Palestinians and to avoid a military operation, believing that it would lead to deterioration of the situation and affect the entire West Bank. That position was accepted in the army and at the political level,” Haikov wrote.
Following an investigation of the incident by Maj. Gen. (res.) Yoram Yair, which included another current Likud cabinet minister, Yoav Gallant, Yair said in a press conference: “The understanding among the senior commanders was that the Palestinians were working to rescue the wounded man [Yusuf] and that they would reach the tomb in a short amount of time and act accordingly. The picture portrayed also reflects ongoing Palestinian efforts, albeit ineffective ones, to create a buffer between Palestinian crowds and Joseph's tomb."
The commanders took a reasonable approach, Yair said, and made the correct choice, based on an analysis of the incident. The Yusuf family and non-profit groups demanded an investigation by an impartial commission, but the request was refused.
The incident resurfaced in the course of Gantz’s military career. When he was nominated as the army chief of staff in 2011, it was clear that the incident would be considered by the screening committee for senior appointments. Yousef’s family approached Prime Minister Netanyahu personally at the time to block Gantz’s nomination.
Netanyahu responded in a letter that the committee on senior appointments “has been convinced, despite the doubts raised, that Gantz is a fitting candidate for chief of staff.” Netanyahu wrote to Yousef's brother that the appointments committee had found nothing to implicate Gantz in his handling of the incident or prevent his appointment as chief of staff.
Retired Supreme Court Justice Jacob Turkel, who headed the senior appointments committee, also wrote to the family and confirmed the committee’s conclusion regarding Gantz’s conduct. He noted that Gantz was not the senior commander involved at the time, since the army chief of staff and the head of the army’s Central Command were present. Later Turkel wrote to the family again and noted that “the prime minister had said that Maj. Gen. Gantz was very fitting to serve as chief of staff and is very experienced.”
Testimony and documentation did surface after the incident, however, relating to Gantz’s responsibility as division commander for conduct prior to the incident. Several months before the mishap, in a secret document, an officer with the army’s Central Command wrote: “preparedness at that site of Joseph’s tomb and its defense in terms of weaponry and construction infrastructure in a period of diplomatic crisis… is as low as it could be!”
Among other issues, the document noted a need for additional measures to ensure a safe withdrawal from the sight if necessary. Other army documents indicated that the army had doubts about whether they could rely on Palestinians in case a rescue effort was needed.
Several days before the incident, senior Palestinian Authority officials informed high-ranking army and Shin Bet officials that, due to Palestinian public pressure in Nablus, the Palestinians could not be counted on to carry out a rescue mission of Israeli soldiers from the vicinity of the tomb in event of a confrontation.
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