How Many Dead Palestinians Is Too Many?

A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el
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Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Aviv Kochavi at the funeral of journalist Roni Daniel, last month.
A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el

“Chief of Staff Aviv Kochavi asked senior commanders in the Central Command to act to reduce the instances of shooting at Palestinians in the West Bank,” according to a report by Yaniv Kubovich in Tuesday’s Haaretz. Presumably there could be no more resounding refutation of the journalist Gideon Levy’s comments about Kochavi, to the effect that “an army commander who has nothing to say about this methodical killing contributes even more to the army’s degradation.”

Here we have a chief of staff who pays attention to the people’s feelings, who understands that the acts of murder carried out in his name in the West Bank and Gaza Strip don’t go down easily with the public, even if only a tiny minority of it. He arises like a lion to stop the crime and “asks” his senior officers to keep an eye on the unruly behavior.

LISTEN: Israeli settlers call the shots as Palestinian fatalities mount

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It makes absolutely no difference whether Kochavi was impressed by what was written in the media or by the criticism from the “political leadership” and defense establishment over the conduct of Central Command head Tamir Yadai – that senior Central Command officers operated in a manner likely to ignite the West Bank.

The important question is how to implement Kochavi’s request on the ground. How many innocent Palestinians are we allowed to kill before it ignites a conflagration? Will every brigade or company receive a monthly or yearly quota of dead that should not be exceeded?

We can already hear the cries of woe from the settler leaders that the chief of staff is not letting the IDF win. They can stop worrying – Kochavi only asked to lower the flames, not extinguish them. He only asked IDF officers, not them. The settlers are not subordinate to him, and their weapons, including those belonging to soldiers that they occasionally use, are free from restrictions.

The really surprising thing is Kochav’s demand to involve more senior officers in operations on the ground and ensure that more decisions are made in the higher ranks. Here is a dilemma: Who are those senior officers who will be held responsible? In Operation Protective Edge, the 2014 Gaza war, when then-Col. Ofer Winter commanded the Givati Brigade, he explained to his soldiers that “history has chosen us to be the spearhead of the fighting against the Gazan terrorist enemy, which curses and taunts the God of Israel’s campaigns.”

Today Brig. Gen. Winter commands the Utzbat Ha’esh, an elite paratroops division subordinate to Central Command, which is headed by Maj. Gen. Yadai, the most senior officer responsible for the lethal firing on Palestinians. Has Winter’s “spirit of the commander” changed since then? And why should it change, when Defense Minister Benny Gantz himself wore on his lapel the medal for the wholesale killing he was responsible for, as IDF chief of staff, during that same campaign?

This month it turned out that the same spirit was also in effect in the campaigns that followed. In Operation Guardian of the Walls one of the IDF’s bombing runs on Gaza hit temporary structures near Beit Lahia. Six people were killed, including a 9-month-old infant, a 17-year-old girl, three women and a man. The IDF made sure to conceal the incident, and its banal response proved the depth of its indifference.

The IDF has learned lessons and taught them to the unit, muttered the IDF spokesman. No senior officer lost his job. Is it only in that same unit that the lessons were taught, or was the message also sent to other units, and primarily to the senior officers of Central Command? Are these the firefighters who from now on will supervise the “height of the flames”? And who fueled these flames until now?

Since May, over 40 Palestinians have been killed in the West Bank. All that’s missing now is for the IDF spokesman to proudly present this finding as proof of “lessons learned.” Without it, he could claim, 80 Palestinians, or perhaps 100, would have been killed. This is no longer only the “spirit of the commander,” something that depends on the personality and values of an army commander or the head of a regional command. Here, instead, we see a culture of military occupation that doesn’t change because of some order. By now, this is a matter of battle heritage.

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