Setting the Record Straight on Bennett and Lebanon

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Naftali Bennett at the President’s Residence, after recommending that Benjamin Netanyahu form the next government, January 31. Credit: Olivier Fitoussi

My credentials: I’m a captain in the Israel Defense Forces reserves and chairman of the board of B’Tselem: the Israeli Information Center for Human Rights in the Occupied Territories.

During my regular military service, I was an officer in the Maglan special forces unit. I served there with other officers under the command of Naftali Bennett, head of Habayit Hayehudi and the current economy minister. In Operation Grapes of Wrath, 19 years ago, in southern Lebanon, I was part of a force in the unit of which Bennett was the commanding officer.

To get straight to the point: All the rumors, allegations and nitpicking about Bennett’s behavior in Operation Grapes of Wrath are totally baseless. If there are well-founded allegations, now is the time for the senior officers who are hiding in the shadows to step into the light and testify about what they know, in their name and in their voice.

As someone who was in a position just hundreds of meters away from Bennett, I can say that he operated according to the rules, did not deviate from orders and went where he was told to go, according to the prior planning.

The position Hezbollah fired upon was the one I was in, not Bennett. The commander of that position, Lt. G., reported that we were under fire, and Bennett passed on the information via the radio transmitter.

“[He] sounded hysterical on the transmitter,” one journalist has written? Well, Bennett’s soldiers were taking fire. It’s perfectly reasonable that the adrenaline that flowed between our ears when shells struck our position, flowed through him, too. There’s nothing amiss about that. And even more important, Bennett did not know, and could not have known, the source of the shooting at us – and there was even less of a chance that he could have known that there were civilians next to that source.

All of this happened from afar, and we only heard about the horrific disaster at Kafr Kana (when 102 Lebanese civilians were killed by Israeli shelling) two days later, when we were flown back to Israel. Indeed, to pin the blame for Kafr Kana on a 22-year-old officer, as the latter-day commentators have done, is to shoot the gatekeeper between the eyes.

It’s true that Israeli leaders like to latch on to what’s known as the “big picture” in order to justify any price in human lives – both those of IDF soldiers and of the civilians on the other side – and this heightens the responsibility of the officer in the field, the one who sees with his own eyes what’s happening and has the ability to avert certain situations.

In this case, however, amid the distorted big picture, there was no way Bennett could have acted differently than he did. Other than to refuse to take part in that contemptible and unnecessary war – and that, we can assume, is something he wouldn’t do today, either.

The prime minister at the time, Shimon Peres, and the chief of staff, Amnon Lipkin-Shahak, were the ones who made the decision to launch Operation Grapes of Wrath, and they are responsible for its devastating results. The attempt to pin the blame on Bennett, a junior field officer, is doubly wrong: It casts false blame and it shifts attention away from the fact that this was a superfluous battle in a superfluous war.

There were also comparisons to Ehud Barak, a former head of Military Intelligence and a former chief of staff, in the newspaper articles that generated the current accusations. [The mass-circulation Yedioth Ahronoth ran an article claiming that flawed judgment by Bennett was what made his troops walk into an ambush, and that in order to extricate them the IDF shelled an area populated by civilians.]

It’s disappointing to see leading journalists falling into the clichéd glorification of the special units and of the role played by Benjamin Netanyahu when he was an officer in the elite Sayeret Matkal commando unit. Both Netanyahu and Bennett were junior officers in their units, who operate at the tactical level and don’t know the full scope of the battle. A comparison between a captain and the chief of staff misses the point: the scale of the responsibility, its depth and its essence.

‘Self-genocide’ and spin

And now from Bennett the junior officer to Bennett the cabinet minister and head of Habayit Hayehudi. By the same token that the young Bennett is not to blame for the terrible disaster at Kafr Kana, he bears heavy responsibility today for the death of hundreds of civilians in the war in the Gaza Strip last summer, in what he himself called “self-genocide,” meaning he is aware of the scale of the disaster, including the destruction of the homes of tens of thousands of people, who are now exposed to the elements, including the recent winter storm.

Bennett, who acquires most of his political capital from the contempt he shows for human rights as a whole and those of the Palestinians (“Arabs,” in his word) in particular, bears his responsibility proudly. He also abandoned his claim that “I’m the one who discovered the existence of the [underground Hamas] tunnels” – as part of which he claimed exclusive knowledge of information that actually had been known to the army and to residents of the Israeli communities near Gaza for years – immediately after the fighting ended, inasmuch as he did not make an effort to have soldiers remain in the communities around the Gaza Strip, even though they are still vulnerable to the tunnel threat.

Bennett could have promoted solutions to the distress of the residents in the south by virtue of his status as a senior minister – as head of a major party in the coalition and leader of a whole segment of the Israeli public – by political means, and by striving to achieve and implement a political agreement. Instead, he chose cynically to intensify the residents’ suffering and to exploit that suffering to continue the conflict and aggravate the resentment between Israelis and Palestinians.

In his two years in national politics, the economy minister has kept himself busy with a political campaign that seems to have no beginning and no end. And as he leaps nimbly from one political spin to the next, never taking time to follow through on the issues he claims to care about, he’s outdoing even Netanyahu. True, he rode in on the huge shoulders of Ronen Shoval (a founder of the Im Tirtzu organization, which one court says has fascist traits), and of Likud MKs Miri Regev and Yariv Levin in the way he has sent public and political discourse in Israel plummeting to new depths. However, his part in that development is relatively greater than theirs, given the short time he’s been active in politics.

His incitement, from the very heart of the political stage, and the actions he has supported as minister, have caused far graver damage than the responsibility he does not bear for the Kafr Kana massacre. Bennett’s behavior – his disdain for Jewish and universal values, such as human rights and mutual surety; his declared intention to have Israel go on ruling the lives of millions of Palestinians and to violate their basic rights indefinitely; the way he is implementing the doctrine of his mentor, Netanyahu, to continue with the privatization of the Israeli economy, thereby marginalizing increasing segments of the society and expanding the economic and social gaps; and his share in the brutality shown to the country’s asylum seekers and slum dwellers, contrary to the compassion that the history of the Jewish people’s suffering calls for – all this underlies the tremendous damage Bennett is wreaking now, and not 18 years ago.

Bennett is not responsible for the harsh events in Kafr Kana. But he does bear great responsibility for Israel’s moral collapse in recent years. And the more serious that collapse becomes, the more his power grows. That’s what we need to be dealing with.

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