In the wake of the wave of killings of Palestinians in the West Bank in the last months, it was reported that the Israel Defense Forces chief of staff met with senior commanders of the Central Command and “requested” that they take steps to reduce the number of shooting incidents. The IDF spokesperson did not confirm this, and the ambiguity is deliberate.
To understand the current lightness on the trigger, we have to go back to 2015-1016, when the “lone wolf intifada” emerged in the West Bank and threatened to set off a wider third intifada. The official army has one main job in the West Bank: to ensure that Israel’s control is not undermined due to an outburst of violence that would put the West Bank’s future on the international agenda and spur pressure for a diplomatic solution. However, the unofficial policing army, which operates in the West Bank on the basis of the nucleus of the Kfir Brigade and the settler militias, has a different job, which is to enable a gradual Jewish takeover of the West Bank.
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These two armies are in constant tension. But when the lone wolf intifada broke out, the commander of the official army, Gadi Eisenkot, was able to exert partial authority over the policing army. He understood the potential for a conflagration better than the politicians and managed to prevent it. To this end, the Central Command worked to maintain normal life for a majority of the population with a pinpoint focus on the areas of violence. As part of this effort, restraining directives about opening fire were handed down.
One example of this can be seen in the words of then-head of the Central Command, Roni Numa, who wrote in an article that “with the effort to apply tactical force, the fighter’s ability to neutralize the assailant’s activity without killing him (when the situation allows for this) is strengthened, so as to reduce the amount of funerals that are turned into public shows of solidarity, and to prevent the glorification of the assailant as a shahid [martyr] who gave his life for the homeland.” Eisenkot’s statement – “I don’t want a soldier to empty his weapon at a girl with scissors” – was part of the same attitude.
But this restrained approach was much criticized by the right, including by government ministers. The killing of Abdel Fattah al-Sharif, a Palestinian assailant who was lying incapacitated on the ground, by IDF soldier Elor Azaria in 2016, and the backing the shooter received from the right wing, brought about a shift in the army’s stance.
Since then, the army’s criterion for success has no longer been the prevention of killing in order to avoid an expansion of violence; instead, the army began citing the number of Palestinians killed as a way of rebuffing the accusations of cowardice.
Eisenkot even boasted that “in the past two years, 171 terrorists were killed in Judea and Samaria [the West Bank] alone.” Later, he boasted that just one soldier (Azaria) was convicted out of tens of thousands of cases where force was used.
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The “lethality” that current Chief of Staff Aviv Kochavi spoke of when he took over was based on this new cultural underpinning. New, because Numa projected the opposite message. Defense Minister Benny Gantz also gave this new culture a boost when he posted a video during his political campaigning in which he bragged that 1,364 Palestinians were killed in the 2014 Gaza war.
The X’s that soldiers sometimes notch into their weapons to denote the number of people they have killed have spread from the rifle barrels to the commanders’ offices. The policing army has superseded the official army.
In such circumstances, a light hand on the trigger is inevitable. It derives from a culture of lethality and body counts. Kochavi is unlikely to try to follow the path on which his predecessor was burned, unless, as appears to be happening, the politicians persuade him of the need to rein in the policing army for the sake of the hallowed status quo of Israeli control in the West Bank.