A soldier in the Givati Brigade’s Tzabar Battalion beat a left-wing activist visiting Hebron Friday with his fists, and he did so knowing that Itamar Ben-Gvir was on his side. That is not a presumption. Another soldier said so explicitly to activists who filmed the incident: “Ben-Gvir will bring order here. That’s it, you’re screwed. The whorehouse you made of this place is over. Everything you do is against the law. I make the law.”
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This mood is only expected to intensify once a new government is sworn in and Ben-Gvir moves into a ministry tailored to his demands by Prime Minister-designate Benjamin Netanyahu. According to their coalition agreement, the Public Security Ministry will be expanded especially for him by giving it authority over certain other enforcement agencies, including the 18 companies of Border Police operating in the West Bank. For anyone who failed to understand the significance of this, Defense Minister Benny Gantz provided an explanation – “Netanyahu is creating a private army for Ben-Gvir” in the West Bank.
Given that Israel is embarking on a new chapter in its history in which the distinction between the army and the police (as well as the distinction between external and internal enemies) is being undermined, the response by senior army officers to the incident in Hebron – a city where the relationship between the army and the settlers is warped in any case – is of great importance.
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The Israel Defense Forces suspended both soldiers from operational duty. Chief of Staff Aviv Kochavi sent an open letter to the soldiers in which he condemned the incident and stressed that soldiers are “completely forbidden to use unnecessary force.” He also commented on the political statements made by the second soldier, emphasizing that “the IDF is a national army that has no place for the expression of political views or for acts stemming from political considerations.”
These are important statements, but it’s unreasonable to think they will be enough to halt the dangerous development Ben-Gvir represents, both in himself and through his agents. It’s impossible not to wonder how effective the chief of staff’s public appeal, however toughly worded, will be when immediately after its release, Ben-Gvir responded by saying he’ll demand explanations for Kochavi’s letter and accused the left-wing activist of provoking the soldiers. Who will the soldiers listen to? The chief of staff who condemned their behavior, or the person slated to become the national security minister, who effectively put himself on their side against the chief of staff?
This difficult challenge will soon land on the doorstep of the next chief of staff, Herzl Halevi, who is slated to begin his term in January 2023. Halevi will have to maneuver in extremely complex conditions to prevent a dangerous politicization of the IDF and its division into separate militias, each of them obeying the orders of a different commander.
The above article is Haaretz’s lead editorial, as published in the Hebrew and English newspapers in Israel.