Israeli Military Chief Doesn't Own the Rules of Engagement

Despite how the controversy over Gadi Eisenkot's remarks have played out, the open-fire regulations are not only a military issue, but a political one as well.

IDF Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Gadi Eisenkot addressing the Institute for National Security Studies in Tel Aviv, January 18, 2015.
Moti Milrod

According to the rules of engagement, the use of force will be restricted to the level, magnitude and duration needed for self-defense. They imply, ostensibly, that a soldier must not empty a clip on a “13-year-old girl holding scissors or a knife when there is a barrier between them” as IDF Chief of Staff Gadi Eisenkot said last week.

But these instructions do not come from an official IDF document. They were issued by the British army in 2009, setting the rules for contact with the civilian population in Afghanistan. They are presented here to show the confusion in Eisenkot's statement and in the responses to it by politicians on both the right and left.

In contrast to the Israeli approach, in other democratic countries (Britain is just one example) the rules of engagement are not a military matter, but a political one. They are political because they place supreme authority in the hands of soldiers and police to take human life, and they sharpen the dilemma between the protection of the lives of soldiers and police on the one hand, and respect for the lives of civilians and fighters belonging to a minority group. Many democratic societies wrestle with this dilemma, but in Israel it is pushed to the sidelines of public discourse.

The rules of engagement are political whether they heed or challenge the principles of international law. They create a political reality: They can calm down a violent situation or they can magnify the Palestinians’ opposition to Israeli control over their lives.

That is why in Western democracies politicians are involved, not only defense ministries or the military, in formulating the rules of engagement, and why debate goes on there about the values these rules represent. In democratic countries, the rules of engagement are not secret; they are contained in an open, public document. In Israel, the rules of engagement are derived “from both the implementation of the mission and our scale of values as an army,” as the chief of staff said in his widely quoted address.

Eisenkot forgot to note that these instructions also derive from directives emanating from the political arena. Or, rather, he did not forget, but correctly pegged the principles guiding the political culture in Israel, which place the rules for killing in the hands of the army.

As Eisenkot did when he made public the “IDF strategy” document in August, in his remarks about the rules of engagement he shared with all Israelis a policy that should have been worked through with the politicians. And not only with the prime minister and defense minister, but with the security cabinet, the full cabinet and the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee. Because Eisenkot did not, the politicians should have demanded a discussion of the rules of engagement.

In their weakness, which is a weakness of the intellect and not only of authority, the politicians had no choice but to join the chief of staff in a public debate. Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan and Transportation Minister Yisrael Katz went even further, the latter turning his Facebook page into a policy-formulating tool. Katz suggested in his post that Eisenkot's instructions led to hesitation that endangered the lives of Israelis who were stabbed at the Sha’ar Binyamin supermarket last Thursday. We did not hear from Katz a demand to discuss Eisenkot’s remarks in the cabinet.

If, according to the chief of staff, only the army is authorized to determine the rules of engagement, one wonders why he does not enforce them and deal severely with those who deviate from them. Rogel Alpher wrote that “Eisenkot is breaking the silence too” (Haaretz, February 19). But the role of the chief of staff is to command, not to warn that he is having trouble enforcing his authority. That role should be left to the breakers of silence.