The End of Israel's Army as We Know It?

Alongside the official army is another force that is committed first and foremost to providing security to the settlers.

Israeli soldiers carry the body of one of two Palestinians who were killed after a stabbing attack in Hebron on March 24.
AP

The execution by a soldier of a wounded Palestinian in Hebron and the resulting public campaign in defense of the soldier are not just a battle over the Israel Defense Forces’ rules of engagement. They reflect a fundamental structural change that, since the early 2000s, has led to the gradual creation of two armies.

The official army is the one subordinated to political authority via its senior commanders. This army operates on the understanding that it is a tool for implementing policies devised by the politicians.

But alongside it, another army has developed in the West Bank, one concerned with policing. Ostensibly, this army is also subordinated to political authority, but only partially. Its deployment in the West Bank has dragged it into becoming a kind of militia – a power that sets policy which, not infrequently, deviates from the official policy.

Granted, this policing army is subordinated to the official chain of command. But it conducts itself like an army that is invested in the settler community. Its official job is defined as enforcing the law in the West Bank, but its forces are committed first and foremost to providing security to the settlers.

Therefore, a kind of organizational culture has developed that is often expressed in foot-dragging when it comes to enforcing the law against the settlers – ignoring violations of the law and standing aside in the face of settler violence. This has given rise to the phenomenon of “price-tag” attacks and illegal settlement outposts, as well as concealment of information, leaks of information and more.

In this army, boundaries are blurred between the official units and the settlers’ armed militias, which operate under the auspices of the army’s territorial defense system. Many of those who serve in the policing army, as well as many of their commanders, are settlers, graduates of hesder yeshivas (which combine Torah study and army service) or graduates of religious pre-army academies, and they have been taught that their primary task is to defend the settlement enterprise.

Those who were educated differently undergo a gradual process of “reeducation” during their army service via social exposure to the settlers, assisted by the impressive educational activity of the military rabbinate, which views the Palestinians as “Amalek” – the ancient enemy whom the Jews are commanded to destroy – or at least as people inferior to a soldier. A significant percentage of the soldiers who volunteer for service in the Kfir Brigade (which operates mainly in the West Bank) or the Border Police choose these service options for nationalist reasons. Their commanders long ago realized that the soldiers’ success will be measured not only by the degree of loyalty they demonstrate to the army’s official command, but also by their ability to complete their posting without getting into conflicts with the settlers.

For years now, there is a growing but mistaken consensus that the burgeoning of this policing army has impeded the official army only in enforcing the law against the settlers, but that not in its operational activity against the Palestinians. The execution in Hebron and the ensuing public campaign show a different picture. This incident demonstrates the yawning gap that has developed between the high command and the units.

The high command tries to enforce the comparatively restrained rules of engagement, out of a desire to keep what is known as the third intifada on a relatively low flame, to gain time for a diplomatic process, and especially to prevent the expansion of the intifada and the collapse of the Palestinian Authority. This is a sober command that doesn’t want to be dragged into a military confrontation.

Facing off against it are units whose culture, operational logic and motivation are very different. It’s impossible to come up with any other explanation for how an execution could happen in the presence of the soldier’s commanders. In an army that’s already based on a partly voluntary draft rather than the mandatory draft, soldiers have bargaining power to use against the senior command, with backing from their families and political supporters and, in this case, with help from the power networks of the religious Zionist community.

This is not a battle over the army’s character alone, but over the very existence of a united army.