Aviv Kochavi (C) at a ceremony marking his appointment as IDF chief of staff, January 15th, 2019.
(photo credit: AVSHALOM SASSONI/ MAARIV)
On Tuesday, Lt.-Gen. Aviv Kochavi took over as the IDF’s new chief of staff. My first wish for him, and for us, is that he will not have to have “his war.” It is clear that his first responsibility is to make sure that the army is prepared for war and if there is a war, that the army will win with as few casualties as possible (on all sides). Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and the new chief of staff, in their speeches at the ceremony for the changing of the guards, said the IDF would be stronger than ever and more deadly than ever. What a wish.
Perhaps the main goal of any army has to be its success in the battlefield. As Netanyahu said, the first goal of the IDF under Kochavi is to win the next war. That is the best tactical approach to the battlefield. But a more strategic approach, which should be the main focus of the political echelon and backed by the actions of the army should be to prevent the next war. Preventing the next war is a function of what every military person calls “building deterrence,” which essentially means making sure the enemy understands the depth of death and destruction that they will receive if they dare to take aggressive actions against us.
The other main aspect of preventing the next war is to provide what has been called in Israel a “political horizon,” meaning having a reason to hope that through moderation and diplomacy the other side can achieve more for their cause and their people than using aggression, force and violence.
The primary contact point between Palestinian civilians and officials is the Israeli army. The IDF has been known to engage in activities that at times have provided political and economic horizons. There have been senior officers who understand that as the sovereign in the occupied territories, there is a lot of power in the hands of the army not only for using “sticks,” but also for using “carrots.”
Toward the end of the Second Intifada, after experiencing years of horrific terrorist attacks inside of Israel, and after the Palestinians felt the pains of destruction as a result of Operation Defensive Shield in which the Palestinian Authority was crushed and the whole area was reoccupied by the IDF, the military launched new procedures to lesson friction at the checkpoints. A new function of “humanitarian officers” was created at the main checkpoints into Israel.
Reservist Arabic-speaking officers, usually in their 40s and 50s, were stationed to assist when the contact between the young soldiers and Palestinian civilians erupted into heightened tension and animosity. I have personally heard hundreds of stories of the sense of humiliation felt by Palestinians at Israeli checkpoints. I experienced this myself many times over many years and as recent as this week when I arranged to pick up a Palestinian work colleague outside of the Beit El checkpoint, which was closed, after being opened the day before.
The behavior of the soldiers at the checkpoints where Palestinians cross, which I see often, is usually disgraceful. Of course there are exceptions, but the rule is behavior of disrespect, aggression, looks of hatred, gross and improper use of a few words in Arabic and as an Israeli citizen who served in the army and educated officers – it is disgraceful and an embarrassment.
When I kindly suggested to a solider at the checkpoint that he could speak more calmly and less aggressively to my Palestinian colleague and others nearby, that he didn’t have to shout at people, he responded by pointing his gun at me and yelling at me in the same tone and words that he used to the Palestinians.
Suggesting that he should speak to people with respect, I also noted that I could be his father. His response was: you could never be my father, my father would not have your opinions! He did not know me or my opinions, but that fact that I have Palestinian colleagues was enough for him to understand that he had the license to treat me with total disrespect. If I were his officer, he would be sent to prison for his behavior – unfitting of a soldier of the Israeli army.
DURING MY reserve duties before the Second Intifada, I was often brought to lecture to officers and soldiers who staffed joint patrols (which existed before the Second Intifada as part of the Oslo agreements). In those days there were specific orders and training for officers who commanded soldiers who had contact with the Palestinian civilian population. They were trained to be sensitive and to treat people with respect. That does not seem to exist anymore – at least I don’t see it or hear about it.
Changing the behavior of the soldiers is only a small part of what the army could do to create a climate that could encourage paths toward renewing a political negotiating process. While the primary decisions are in the hands of the prime minister and his government, it is the IDF that is the legal sovereign in the occupied territories and the soldiers that have the direct contact with the Palestinian civilian public. There were attempts in the past to find ways to ease the movement of people and goods around the occupied territory. Those steps are essential for economic stabilization and growth, without which there will be more frequent rounds of violence.
The solutions for our conflict with the Palestinians are not really in making a more comfortable occupation. The real solutions must be political and aimed at ending Israel’s control over the Palestinian lands and people. Political steps must be complemented with economic and social steps that remove tension and open opportunities for more human contact that is less filled with animosity, fear and hatred. This is a long process and the IDF has a key role to play in that process.
I wish and recommend to the new chief of staff that the spirit of the IDF needs not only to be about being victorious in battle, but also being respectful of human life and to treat people, including Palestinian people, with respect and dignity. The writer is a political and social entrepreneur who has dedicated his life to the State of Israel and to peace between Israel and her neighbors. His latest book, In Pursuit of Peace in Israel and Palestine, was published by Vanderbilt University Press.
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