Security and Defense: Fighting for legitimacy - against friend and foe

Security and Defense Fi

negohot nachshon soldiers 248.88 (photo credit: Courtesy of Negohot resident Asaf Freed)
negohot nachshon soldiers 248.88
(photo credit: Courtesy of Negohot resident Asaf Freed)
In the middle of Operation Cast Lead in the Gaza Strip last January, the IDF decided to open a medical clinic at the Erez Crossing to treat wounded Palestinians. While the number of Palestinians who came to the facility was low, the option was available - and utilized - throughout the fighting. A visit to the Erez Crossing this week shows no sign that a clinic had ever been there, and yet the hall where the clinic used to be is one of the busiest parts of the terminal. But instead of being filled with doctors and patients, the rooms are now occupied by Military Police investigators tasked with securing testimonies from Palestinians in order to complete the 28 criminal probes of possible IDF war crimes committed during Cast Lead. The investigations are based on over 140 different cases that were submitted to the Military Advocate General's office for review by international aid organizations, NGOs and private Palestinians, some of which even appeared in the UNHRC report based on the findings of Justice Richard Goldstone. The cases chosen for criminal investigation include allegations that IDF troops opened fire on Palestinian civilians, abused Palestinian detainees and looted Palestinian property. Last month, Chief of General Staff Lt.-Gen. Gabi Ashkenazi appointed Brig.-Gen. (res.) Yuval Halamish, a former top Military Intelligence officer, to serve as the "project manager" for all IDF efforts to counter the damning report written by the Goldstone mission and recently approved by the United Nations General Assembly. One of the first decisions Halamish made was to speed up the investigations with the goal of completing them all in the coming weeks. The hope in the IDF is that most, if not all the units under investigation will be exonerated. Either way, Ashkenazi wants to put together a report describing the investigations and their results to show the world that the IDF does not shy away from criticism and knows how to probe itself independently. Another integral part of the "counter-Goldstone" report that the IDF is compiling is the section on the humanitarian efforts made by the army during the three-week operation. In that regard, this week the head of the Gaza Coordination and Liaison Administration, Col. Moshe Levi, submitted a lengthy and detailed report to the General Staff listing the IDF humanitarian efforts during the operation. Parts are already well-known, like the 37,000 tons of supplies the army allowed into Gaza during the operation, and the three-hour daily breaks from fighting implemented by Israel to allow Palestinians to move freely to replenish supplies and repair damaged infrastructure. The report also sheds some new, positive light on the operation. Along with fighting against Hamas, IDF troops apparently found the time to feed abandoned livestock and animals, to arrange for fire trucks to enter areas that were closed off or under curfew, and, in a number of cases, even personally evacuated Palestinians in need of medical care. One elderly woman, Ayish Tanua, called the CLA complaining that she suffered from kidney disease. Troops reached her home in northern Gaza and transported her back to the border, where she was evacuated to Barzilai Hospital in Ashkelon. In another instance, IDF troops were sent by the CLA to the home of a Palestinian diabetic to personally deliver him insulin. In total, the report reveals that the IDF coordinated the evacuation of over 1,200 Palestinian families during the fighting from northern Gaza to the south, arranged for over 80 maintenance crews to reach areas where fighting was taking place to fix vital infrastructure, and allowed close to 200 ambulances to cross from the south to the north, despite the blockade that the military had imposed on the north where it was conducting most of its operations. The ambulances, the report reveals, were not always innocent. In one case, soldiers conducting surveillance from the Paratroopers Brigade spotted armed Hamas fighters getting into three different ambulances. The soldiers asked brigade commander Col. Herzi Levy what to do. His orders were to hold fire, even though the ambulances were legitimate targets. The official IDF orders during the operation stated clearly: "It is preferred to miss terrorists in order to minimize harm to civilians." Claims that the IDF refused to transfer wounded or sick Palestinians to Israeli hospitals are also dismissed in the report. Levi spoke several times during the operation with Ramallah-based Palestinian Health Minister Dr. Fathi Abu Maghli and offered Israeli medical assistance. Abu Maghli refused. While some critics will argue that this report is too little, too late, the IDF hopes that together with the results of the criminal investigations, Israel will be able to show the world that it is capable of running its own investigations, and - even more importantly - that it fought fairly and with the correct level of proportionality. IT REMAINS unclear what the final outcome will be of the Goldstone report, but regardless, that is not the issue that is preventing the Palestinians from sitting down with Israel for peace negotiations. Rather, as President Barack Obama made clear this week, it is Israel's continued policy of building in settlements and the Jerusalem neighborhood of Gilo that is making the Palestinians "bitter." And as Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu continues to try and cajole PA President Mahmoud Abbas into meeting with him, the IDF is facing a problem that has the potential, if not dealt with correctly, of making any peace deal extremely difficult to implement. If the government is serious about moving forward with peace negotiations with the Palestinians, then Ashkenazi will need to be able to prove that his military will be able to assist in a mass evacuation - like the disengagement from the Gaza Strip in 2005 - and won't fall apart after large numbers of soldiers refuse orders. But based on a growing trend in the Kfir Brigade, such a breakdown is becoming a real possibility. The first post-disengagement refusniks (insubordinate soldiers) appeared in August 2007 when 12 soldiers from the Duhifat Battalion refused to climb aboard a bus departing their base in the Jordan Valley meant to take them to Hebron, where they were slated to provide perimeter security during the planned evacuation of a home taken over by settlers. Last month, two soldiers from the Shimshon Battalion pulled out a banner reading, "Shimshon does not evacuate Homesh," - a reference to the northern Samaria settlement evacuated during the 2005 disengagement - during their swearing-in ceremony at the Western Wall in Jerusalem. And on Monday, in the latest act of insubordination, six soldiers from the Nahshon Battalion were suspended and punished by their commander for waving a banner reading, "Nahshon also does not expel" from the rooftop of a building on their base in the southern Hebron Hills, and shortly after the Border Police razed two illegal homes in the Negohot outpost. The new wave of refusals stems from a number of different factors, but mainly from frustration with the outcome of the disengagement. The soldiers in the IDF today were in high-school during the disengagement, a time when many rabbis promised that it wouldn't happen and politicians argued that it would improve Israeli security. Both predictions were wrong. "This disappointment made youth more radical, and instilled within them the belief that in order to stop something they don't agree with, they have to take action," explained one officer from the IDF's Central Command. The main problem is that the IDF's capacity to prevent such insubordination is quite limited. While Ashkenazi has ensured that soldiers do not partake in actual evacuation, and instead has promised that they would be used just as perimeter security, this is not enough for some soldiers who feel that indirect participation is as direct as lifting a settler and carrying him out of his home. In addition, the soldiers' punishments do not seem to be having the deterrent effect that the IDF had hoped for, and additional soldiers have already threatened this week that in the next evacuation, they, too, will refuse orders. The alternative, punishing hesder yeshivas like the one run by refusnik supporter Rabbi Elyakim Levanon from Elon Moreh, will also likely backfire and lose the IDF an-already dwindling resource - combat soldiers. After the disengagement and Levanon's call for refusal, then chief of staff Lt.-Gen. (res.) Dan Halutz made a similar threat to punish yeshivas supporting insubordination, but later backed down due to the realization that such a move would radicalize otherwise mainstream national-religious groups. What senior officers believe is needed is a greater understanding by the soldiers and their rabbis that acts of refusal are detrimental not only to the IDF, but to the delicate social fabric that keeps this state together. "It all boils down to one main question," the officer said. ""What kind of country do we want here?"