Opinion |

When a Military Commander Takes Orders From Settlers

Zehava Galon
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Israeli settlers gather during a rally near the West Bank city of Nablus, February.
Israeli settlers gather during a rally near the West Bank city of Nablus, February. Credit: Ariel Schalit /AP
Zehava Galon

Like many others, I stared at the screen in disbelief after hearing a recording of a briefing given by Col. Roi Zweig, the Shomron Regional Brigade Commander. He was sending his soldiers to Joseph’s Tomb with the words, “In this location, the land was promised to Abraham, as is written: ‘To your descendants I give this land’ … and we’re operating today with force, as did our forefathers … not like thieves in the night but as sons of kings.’” I blinked, and when I opened my eyes, the text was still there. When it turned out that the brigade commander had contravened the orders of his superiors, I was not surprised. Zweig was only following the orders of his supreme commander.

No, not God. Zweig, a graduate of the Haifa military academy and a former kibbutz member. His supreme commander is the settler leaders who accompanied him to Joseph’s Tomb. I imagine that if Zweig had encountered a terrorist, he would not have hesitated in charging him and risking his life. But, like too many other officers, Zweig excels in military courage but fails at civic courage. He understands that if he gets embroiled in a conflict with settlers, his career is over. Like any other senior officer, Zweig is familiar with the case of Maj. Gen. Nitzan Alon, a brave officer who received a citation from the chief of staff. He was a candidate for the army’s top job, but the settlers crushed his appointment.

Three months ago, Alon wrote an article in Haaretz (along with two other reserve generals), saying that settler violence is endangering the State of Israel. To Alon’s credit, it should be noted that he also said this while he was still in the army, calling so-called “price tag” operations Jewish terror. That exacted a price, with demonstrators appearing outside his home while he was still commander of the Judea and Samaria Division.

The attempts by Netanyahu supporters to protest outside the home of then-Attorney General Avichai Mendelblit ended up at the High Court of Justice for review, but settlers do as they wish, and what they wish is clear: Only officers who suit us will serve in the West Bank.

Alon’s courage had harsh consequences. Any officer seeking promotion (and there is no officer above the rank of captain who doesn’t) understands what will happen to him if he finds himself in conflict with settlers and tries to fulfill his legal obligation to defend the Palestinian population from hilltop “pogromchiks.”

The message has been internalized, as evident in the testimony given by a captain who served in the West Bank to Breaking the Silence: “I believe that brigade commanders in Judea and Samaria have become part of the [settler] community. Ultimately, they act to the degree of pressure exerted by the settlers, according to which commanders go along with the settler mindset.”

For decades, the settlers have effectively been the commanders on the ground. Company commanders frequently meet settler leaders in their sectors. Soldiers receive direct commands from settlement security coordinators. Zweig recently appeared to testify to the good character of the security officer at Havat Gilad, one of the most lawless of the outposts, who was suspected of assisting “price tag” activists.

Can you even imagine a situation in which Zweig would be a character witness for a detained Palestinian? Zweig is simply obeying orders from his real commanders. And there he is, still at his post despite disobeying the orders of the head of Central Command. Why is that? The latter knows full well what will happen to him if he deposes the settlers’ darling of the moment. That’s the spirit of the commander, and the army has become a militia of lawbreakers.

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