Not surprisingly, before the tears over the grave of Staff Sgt. Barel Hadaria Shmueli had even dried, there were those who decided that the right thing to do now is to exploit his death to promote a political agenda. With unerring timing, a new campaign was launched in recent days to demand changes in the Israel Defense Forces’ rules of engagement, accompanied by a Hebrew hashtag #untie_our_hands, and it is being energetically pushed by right-wing lawmakers, journalists and internet influencers. Let me make clear that I do not question the motives of the soldiers who posted the video – I just think they are making a terrible mistake, as I shall explain.
The argument at the basis of this campaign is the kind of thing cowardly bullies have been saying since the dawn of time: “Hey, if my friends weren’t holding me back, I’d beat the crap out of you.” According to the mouthpieces on the right, if Israeli soldiers are struck by Palestinian gunfire, it is due to the IDF’s wimpy and defeatist rules of engagement, which are dictated – naturally – by “the High Court dictatorship” and “the military prosecutor.” If only those human rights-loving jurists from the military prosecutor’s office would stop interfering in the rules of engagement, the IDF would more effectively protect its troops and achieve huge operational gains.
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This is not a new argument. The Israeli right has been making it over and over again for the past several years. For example, in 2019, before he became prime minister and adopted a more stately and conciliatory tone, Naftali Bennett claimed that “The High Court is cuffing the hands of IDF troops” and declared: “This is my and Ayelet Shaked’s mission – to free the IDF from the High Court.” This factually untrue argument contains within it three spurious claims that the right has been trumpeting for the past decade.
The first is that the ones to blame for all the country’s troubles are the bureaucrats, the courts, and the Deep State – a long list of anonymous malicious actors all seeking to undercut Israel’s security. We, the right-wingers, are for the IDF. You – the jurists, the left, the bureaucrats – are against the IDF and therefore against Israel and not part of the people.
The second is that security is the domain of the right, while the law and human rights are for the left. The left is preoccupied with legal nonsense and the Palestinians’ human rights, while the right truly cares about our soldiers. And since the right cares more, it wants “to untie the soldiers’ hands” and “let them win.”
The third, and possibly most important, is the diversion of the discussion from a serious debate about security and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to questions of revenge and loyalty. It is always easier to fire up a desire for vengeance and accuse unnamed parties of tying the soldiers’ hands than to contend with tough questions about the security strategy led by the right in recent years.
As it turns out, a disproportionate response has not deterred a public that has nothing to lose (the endless rounds of fighting in Gaza are all the proof that’s needed here). What can you do when the military occupation of a civilian population requires strict rules of engagement – which, among other things, protect IDF soldiers from a security escalation; and when despite the empty promises of right-wing leaders, Hamas has not been toppled, but has only grown stronger during Benjamin Netanyahu’s tenure and is continuing to do so under Bennett.
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These three claims are inherently false. Regarding the claim that the left is anti-Israel – that argument has been exhausted, it is obviously baseless, and we can leave it at that. So let’s begin with the security argument. The IDF chief of staff, the generals, the brigade commanders, the battalion commanders, the company commanders and the platoon commanders, each one at his level determines the rules of engagement, first and foremost according to operational needs. These determinations involve operational considerations such as preventing gunfire from breaking out and adapting the means of combat in order to achieve the goal (containing a demonstration, destroying a target, foiling a terror attack, etc.). Therefore, when the right attacks the rules of engagement, it is essentially attacking the army’s soldiers and commanders, and not for the first time.
It’s easy to construct an imaginary figure of a left-wing jurist in the military prosecution who cares more about the Palestinians’ human rights than about the security of IDF soldiers. That doesn’t mean that it’s not false. It’s worth noting that the right does not actually have a security argument that supports “freeing the soldiers’ hands.” There is not a shred of proof that jurists are preventing the IDF from acting. The IDF has acted and continues to act with major (and sometimes disproportionate) force versus the Palestinians, and aside from certain videos that don’t look good (to rightists), showing soldiers trying to avoid using force and then being perceived as “running away,” the right has nothing more to sell on this subject, aside from an appetite for vengeance. And vengeance, or firing up voters, is not a security argument.
In the wide security debate concerning the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the emptiness of the right’s security policy is also revealed in all its dubious glory: There are no plans for achieving security, no diplomatic or military objectives, nothing. Only to kill, destroy, and wreak vengeance. You can’t build a nation, and you certainly cannot safeguard it by relying on slogans that sound like they came from a first-grader. Bennett has now learned this for himself. If the most important thing for our soldiers’ security is to “free their hands,” why hasn’t Bennett done so? Has he suddenly become an “Israel-hater”? Of course not.
The difference between Bennett the populist of recent memory and Bennett the prime minister proves once more that the right’s fiery rhetoric is just a cover for the fact that it has nothing really to offer when it comes to Israel’s security. Underneath all the bells and whistles, a right-wing campaign that appears very hawkish and strong on social media is actually a campaign that is attacking IDF commanders, goes against all security rationale, and is motivated, at best, by a childish desire for revenge (I do believe that this is how the soldiers in this campaign really feel) and, at worst, by the cynical exploitation of a soldier’s death (as with the use of right-wing influencers in the campaign).
A final significant thing to note is that the rules of engagement are correct and justified not only to protect our forces; they also have another moral justification (yes, safeguarding our forces is a moral justification) of paramount importance: One purpose of these rules is to protect human rights, to obey the rules of war, and protect the values we want our soldiers to have. These are the Israel Defense Forces, not Phalangists motivated by a thirst for vengeance.
At the same time, focusing on these goals and these alone – as the leftist camp tends to do – would be a missed opportunity. The strength of calls to “untie the soldiers’ hands” derives first from the framing of the right as strong on security and of the left as weak and self-righteous. This equation has to be undone by means of security arguments, not only by invoking human rights and the rules of war.
The writer is a doctoral student in political theory at Oxford University and a research fellow at Molad – The Center for the Renewal of Israeli Democracy.