Opinion

When the IDF Whitewashes the Occupation, the Right Wins

The Israeli army has volunteered, to neither its credit nor ours, to turn itself into a propaganda machine, far exceeding its role. Can new chief of staff be any different to his predecessors?

File photo: Israeli forces deploy during a raid in the West Bank City of Ramallah, January 9, 2019.
Majdi Mohammed/AP

A chief of staff goes, a chief of staff comes. Farewell Eisenkot, hello Kochavi. After 40 years in the military, four of them as Israel’s No. 1 soldier, Lt. Gen. Gadi Eisenkot has taken off his uniform.

Much will be written about him as a commander and the Israel Defense Forces under his command. But on the most important issue, Israeli control in the West Bank and the siege on Gaza, it can already be said that Eisenkot’s term was a direct and developing continuation of his predecessors.

The Eisenkot phase of the process is exemplified by the tension that developed between two well-documented events: his decisive position in the Elor Azaria affair on one hand, and the lethal fire by IDF soldiers that caused the deaths of more than 200 protesters near the Gaza Strip border fence, on the other.

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There is a clear line that joins these two points: “military protocol.” While Azaria was court-martialed after he was recorded shooting and killing in a clear violation of the army’s rules of engagement, the wholesale shooting on demonstrators, most of them unarmed, was, horrifically, in compliance with military protocol.

That, at least, is what the Military Advocate General’s Corps said last summer, accepting most of the findings of the General Staff and ordering an investigation into the shooting deaths of only two protesters. But anyone who has served in the occupied territories knows that there is nothing more ambiguous, changing and given to interpretation than the rules of engagement.

“There are people standing between the [chief of staff’s] office in Tel Aviv and what happens on the ground. These people receive written and spoken and covert instructions, that contain much contradiction and dual meaning. The same commanders who read them one thing out loud send them a completely different [message],” wrote then journalist Ofer Shelah in 2006, before he became a politician with Yair Lapid's Yesh Atid.

This gap, the fact that it is the reality on the ground that dictates protocol, is just one layer of the IDF occupation machine. That machine has become more sophisticated; it now includes two tiers of whitewashing: one of law, the other of consciousness.

The near-automatic response of the IDF Spokesperson’s Unit, which repeatedly tells the Israeli people that everything is fine with the army, already exceeds the army’s role as the executive arm of the political leadership. The explanation has become a stamp of approval and in crossing that line, the IDF has volunteered, to neither its credit nor ours, to turn itself into the propaganda machine of the supporters of the right and the occupation.

Although most of us know to take the spokesman of the supporters of settlements with the appropriate grain of salt, when the top military brass calls unarmed protesters “terrorists” and describes the routine violence of the occupation as a prime security necessity, the Israeli people find it hard to believe that it is people who live on the other side of the fences.

That, for example, was the case with the killing of Razan Najjar, a medic, in early June at the Gaza border. The IDF Spokesperson’s Unit changed its story three times, going so far as having the Arabic-language spokesman show an image of Najjar with wings drawn on it, saying: “Najjar was no angel of mercy.”

The fact that extensive investigations proved that Najjar was killed due to the carelessness of IDF soldiers, who were in no danger when they fired, will not change the image of the incident that was burned into the conscious of the Israeli public.

One can only imagine a situation in which Eisenkot had said to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu during preparations for the Palestinian Great March of Return in the Gaza Strip: “Yes, sir. The security mission is clear. The army will prevent breaches of the fence and to this end will use all means. That will include widespread live fire, which means large numbers of civilian deaths. I will carry it out — but you, and only you, will deal with the consequences and supply the explanations.”

And if this scenario sounds baseless, that is apparently because we have become so used to the military’s PR contribution to the supporters of the occupation that it is already perceived as normal.

However, it is important to remember and to remind others that the role of the army is not to conceal from the public the fact that the mission it has been sent to carry out involves violence and the continual denial of basic rights. The role of the army, as an entity sent to carry out a mission in the name of Israeli society, is to report the truth and to say, yes, that’s the way it is. That is the occupation and that is its cost.

The fact that the people’s army, which has earned sweeping public faith, is volunteering to provide public relations services for government policy, makes the army the No. 1 spokesman for the occupation and its defense of it transparent.

As a society, it is convenient for us to ignore what every soldier who has ever served in the Palestinian territories knows: To maintain the occupation, violence is necessary on a daily basis. Supporters of the occupation want to obfuscate this simple fact, if only because of the destructive impact this violence has on us all.

These are officers who represent on camera the political vision of the settler right. This, too, is foreign interference in the electionnot by Russia, but by a supposedly impartial state entity whose influence is decisive.

After the usual cooling-off period, Citizen Eisenkot may join his predecessors and seek to change the reality that he contributed to perpetuating. Then, when he seeks to break his silence, he, too, will discover the difficulty of breaching the wall of denial. He would do well to give the public an accounting of the occupation and its implications. It would be even more meaningful if the new Chief of Staff, Lt. Gen. Aviv Kochavi, were to abolishes the cover-your-ass protocol immediately.

Avner Gvaryahu is the executive director of Breaking the Silence.