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The soldiers were shocked. From a distance they had spotted the older-looking officer running up the hill with his assault rifle slung over his back and holding his kippa in his hand, so it wouldn't blow away in the strong desert winds. When he reached the top, he replaced his kippa on his head, straightened his brown beret and climbed the nearest dusty Merkava tank.
The officer was OC Central Command Maj.-Gen. Yair Naveh, who had come to the Nebi Mussa training facility in the Judean Desert last week in the middle of the night to observe first hand the tanks and armored vehicles of the 401 Armored Brigade preparing for war with Syria.
Naveh was not just there to watch the exercise and ensure things ran smoothly, but also to share his insight and experiences with the younger officers - who all fought in the Second Lebanon War - from the days when he served as a deputy battalion commander during Operation Peace for Galilee in 1982.
Last week's exercise was the final major drill for the 50-year-old, who after 32 years in military service will hang up his uniform for the last time this month and retire from the IDF.
His career has included some of the most interesting positions along the IDF's chain of command, from the days when he served as a battalion commander in the Golani Brigade to when he was appointed the first religious commander of the brigade in 1991. He later served as chief infantry and paratroop officer and, in 1999, as commander of the Gaza Division, a position he held during the first years of the second intifada. In 2003, he was appointed OC Home Front Command, and in 2005 he took up his current post.
NAVEH'S CAREER has not always been smooth sailing. As a religious officer, he always took an active interest in the integration of religious soldiers in combat units. In an interview with Makor Rishon several years ago, he spoke openly about the IDF's decision not to promote Brig.-Gen. Effi Eitam. "This bothers me not as a religious brigadier-general," he told the paper, "but as a brigadier-general in the army."
The son of Holocaust survivors, the soft-spoken Naveh was born in Gedera and went to high school at the prestigious Netiv Meir Yeshiva. Three of his classmates currently serve in the General Staff with him - OC Human Resources Maj.-Gen. Elazar Stern, OC IDF Colleges Maj.-Gen. Gershon Hacohen and IDF Appeals Court President Maj.-Gen. Yishai Be'er.
Naveh's appointment to the Central Command drew furious reactions from across the political spectrum. Those were the days before the planned disengagement from northern Samaria, a mission he was assigned to carry out. The Left voiced concern that the Netiv Meir graduate would disobey orders; the Right considered the appointment a trick on the part of the government to weaken opposition to the plan by appointing a religious officer to execute it.
As tough as it was for him - he has a daughter who lives on an outpost and a brother in a settlement - Naveh carried out the withdrawal calmly and responsibly. While media reports warned of fierce violence in Homesh and Sa-Nur, Naveh ordered his men to show restraint. His meetings with religious and settlement leaders in the run-up to the evacuation contributed to its being done with relatively quiet.
As hard as he tried to to be considerate of them, however, the settlers would not forgive him for his participation in - and later his command over - the violent demolition of nine houses in the illegal outpost of Amona in 2006, during which nearly 200 activists and policemen were injured.
Quickly after Amona, the harassment began. Right-wing activists began stalking Naveh, and his children received phone calls branding their father a murderer. The IDF decided to set up a guard booth at the entrance to his house in Givat Shmuel.
That didn't stop the extremists, who hold demonstrations outside his home every Saturday night and spray-paint nearby walls, from urging his neighbors not to count him in the minyan during synagogue services. In January, the rhetoric escalated, and a group of rabbis issued a halachic opinion implying that Naveh deserved to be killed.
Officers in the Central Command do not take the demonstrations and harassment lightly. "The settlers are ungrateful," one said. "They don't understand that Naveh is an officer who follows orders. Instead of criticizing him, they should be grateful for his contribution to preventing terror attacks in the West Bank."
Under Naveh's command, terror in the West Bank has dropped to its lowest since the intifada erupted in 2000. This isn't because the Palestinians aren't trying. Last month, the IDF succeeded in breaking up an attempt by Hamas to create an army in the West Bank like the one it has in the Gaza Strip. It has also foiled numerous attempts to manufacture and fire Kassam rockets from West Bank cities.
The success in preventing attacks is due to Naveh's aggressive approach to terror activity. Under his command, the IDF has been given the freedom to operate everywhere in the West Bank, with soldiers entering terror capitals like Nablus, Tulkarm and Jenin on a nightly basis to hunt down Hamas and Islamic Jihad chiefs.
Naveh has also intimately felt the unfortunate consequences of the terror hunt. His son - a medic with the Haruv Battalion - was moderately wounded during an operation in Nablus last July. Another son serves in the elite Maglan unit.
DESPITE HIS media-shyness, Naveh has run into some diplomatic trouble over his career. In 2001, following the firing of mortars in the Gaza Strip, the IDF launched "Operation Hot Days."
Naveh, who was Gaza Division commander, told reporters the IDF would remain in Palestinian areas for "days, weeks or months."
This angered the Americans, and then foreign minister Shimon Peres had to issue an official clarification.
At a 2006 conference in Jerusalem, Naveh told an audience of diplomats and foreign journalists that King Abdullah II could be Jordan's last monarch. After his remarks made headlines around the world, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert called Abdullah to apologize.
During his tenure at Central Command, Naveh has also done his utmost to ease restrictions on the Palestinian civilian population wherever and whenever possible. He succeeded in preventing violence between settlers and Palestinians during this year's olive harvest. He has also played an instrumental role in determining the route of the West Bank security fence and in attempting to ease conditions at crossings, particularly by leading the staff work on building alternative roads for Palestinians.
As commander of the Golani Brigade, Naveh once tried a number of his soldiers who had damaged Palestinian property during an operation in the Gaza Strip. "I was afraid what the intifada could do to my soldiers," he later said. "I was afraid of their losing their compassion and their humanity."
NAVEH'S DEPARTURE, coinciding with the publication of the interim Winograd Report, also marks the beginning of Chief of General Staff Lt.-Gen. Gabi Ashkenazi's
new mission - reorganizing the General Staff.
Maj.-Gen. Gadi Shamni, Olmert's military aide, is seen as the leading candidate to replace Naveh. A number of brigadier-generals are also likely to be promoted, including Yair Golan, commander of the Judea and Samaria Division; Danny Biton, head of doctrine in the General Staff; and Aviv Kochavi, former Gaza Division commander. One of them will replace Shamni.
Due to a harsh report expected from the State Comptroller's Office, OC Home Front Command Maj.-Gen. Yitzhak (Jerry) Gershon is most probably looking at early retirement, and Maj.-Gen. Dan Harel, the military attach in Washington, is predicted to replace Maj.-Gen. Moshe Kaplinsky as deputy chief of General Staff. Other changes in the makeup of the General Staff might be necessary following the publication of the final Winograd report in August.
"General Staff members who were familiar with the assessments and intelligence concerning the Lebanon front, and the serious deficiencies in preparedness and training, did not insist that these should be considered within the army, and did not alert the political leaders concerning the flaws in the decisions and the way they were made," the interim Winograd Report read.
The three officers who have the most to be concerned about from this paragraph are Kaplinsky, OC Ground Forces Maj.-Gen. Benny Gantz and OC Northern Command Maj.-Gen. Gadi Eizenkot, who during the war served as head of the IDF Operations Directorate.
The three were in Dan Halutz's inner circle during the war. The report's wording, they fear, could just be the prologue to an even harsher final report that names and blames them specifically.