For almost five months now there have been terrorist attacks in Israel’s cities and in the settlements in the occupied territories, which the government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has been unable to stop. Individuals, males and females, quite often minors, pull out whatever can be used for stabbing – rarely a firearm – and attack soldiers, police and civilians. Many of the attackers are killed, but that is not enough to stop others from trying again. The continuing bloodshed is unnerving Israelis and a constant reminder of the need to deal with the political roots of the conflict with the Palestinians.
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One aspect of this complex situation is the difference between the rules of engagement of the Israel Defense Forces, defined legally as the sovereign in the territories (where the Border Police, part of the Israel Police, is subject to the army) and those of the police, whose authority also includes East Jerusalem, the focus of the attacks. The issue has raised disagreements between the defense minister and the public security minister. Last week the IDF chief of staff, Lt. Gen. Gadi Eisenkot, also weighed in on the matter when he told a high-school audience in Bat Yam: We do not act according to slogans such as ‘whoever comes to kill you, kill him first.’ “I don’t want soldiers emptying magazines into scissor-wielding girls.”
Eisenkot’s words are no different from what every squad commander in basic training drills into his or her soldiers. The IDF wants, and very rightly so, to maintain discipline when it comes to opening fire. Moreover, there is no comparison between self-defense against knife-wielding attackers and a battle for a military objective. The army’s goal is to remove the threat without causing greater damage in so doing. Indiscriminate firing could lead to injury to bystanders; death from a stray bullet, not from an intentional stabbing, is no less tragic. Security guards and units that specialize in hostage liberation are carefully trained not the hurt the innocent. Such care also obliges ordinary soldiers to restrain themselves; it is good that they hear this from their supreme commander as well as from their direct superiors.
But instead of praising Eisenkot for his leadership and professionalism, some politicians from the ruling parties vied with each other to pillory him so as to win cheers from right-wing voters. Transportation Minister Yisrael Katz posted on Facebook after Thursday’s stabbing: “About an hour ago two Israelis were injured in Binyamin when stabbed by two 14-year-old terrorists. The terrorists were taken into custody and remained alive. I hope the words of the chief of staff, whom I respect and admire, against opening automatic fire on minors, were not mistakenly interpreted, causing hesitation and risking lives.” And Deputy Foreign Minister Tzipi Hotovely said: “The chief of staff’s comments do not serve the depiction of reality on the ground,” and “‘whoever comes to kill you, kill him first’ is an important Jewish principle.”
Woe to the State of Israel led by such as these. It is good that the IDF has different leadership.