Lapid, Kohavi back IDF commanders over Hebron soldiers sentencing

Tzabar Battalion commander hit with a wave of threats following the sentencing of Givati soldiers over Hebron incident.

 Soldiers confront left-wing activists in Hebron, November 25, 2022. (photo credit: Issa Amro and Tal Sagi/Screenshot)
Soldiers confront left-wing activists in Hebron, November 25, 2022.
(photo credit: Issa Amro and Tal Sagi/Screenshot)

IDF Chief of Staff Lt.-Gen. Aviv Kohavi and outgoing Prime Minister Yair Lapid blasted the presumed incoming government led by Benjamin Netanyahu on Wednesday for attempting to interfere with command decisions and for turning soldiers against their commanders.

Addressing the criticism of the punishment given to a Givati Brigade soldier in Hebron who attacked a left-wing protester over the weekend, Lapid said, “The new government has yet to take office and its ministers are already turning IDF soldiers against their commanders.

“The wild incitement spearheaded by [future] ministers and MKs against the chief of staff, the commanding general and against Lt.-Col. Aviran Alfasi, is dangerous and destructive and is the new government’s responsibility,” he continued.

Referring to the conduct of national security minister-designate and Otzma Yehudit head Itamar Ben-Gvir, Lapid stressed, “Our soldiers cannot be told by ministers and MKs to violate army orders. Their lives and our lives depend on having a strong army with a clear chain of command and combat discipline. This incitement, masquerading as ‘backup,’ is dangerous, irresponsible and gnaws at the strength of the IDF.”

Kohavi, who spoke to Givati commander Col. Eliad Moati and Sabar Battalion commander Alfasi, backed up the actions taken by the commanders and made it clear that any political interference in the decisions they make is wrong.

 Soldiers confront left-wing activists in Hebron, November 25, 2022. (credit: Issa Amro and Tal Sagi/Screenshot)
Soldiers confront left-wing activists in Hebron, November 25, 2022. (credit: Issa Amro and Tal Sagi/Screenshot)

“The new government has yet to take office and its ministers are already turning IDF soldiers against their commanders.”

Prime Minister Yair Lapid

“The commanders, and only the commanders, determine the norms and the manner of handling incidents in their units,” he said, according to a statement released by the IDF.

Kohavi said that while troops and commanders deal with complex situations, their actions and mistakes should be handled within the army and be free of any political considerations.

“We will not allow any politician, neither from the Right nor from the Left, to interfere in command decisions and use the army to promote a political agenda. Political interference in the IDF directly harms the army’s ability to carry out its tasks, and its legitimacy,” Kohavi warned.

“Slandering commanders on political grounds is a slippery slope that we as a society must not slide down,” he said. “The soldiers, commanders and also their family members have rights, and they should stay out of any political discourse.”

The comments by Lapid and Kohavi came as Alfasi has been highly criticized for the punishment he gave to five Givati soldiers who beat and cursed at left-wing activists in Hebron on Friday.

In his first comments regarding the incident, prime minister-designate Benjamin Netanyahu took to Twitter to call on the public to keep politics away from the military.

“The IDF is the people’s army; I call on everyone, Right and Left, to leave it out of any political debate,” he wrote.

Nevertheless, in response to Kohavi’s comments, Ben-Gvir said that while he respects him, he would expect that he would also refrain from making political statements.

“I respect the chief of staff very much, but practice what you preach. I would expect from the chief of staff that just as he demanded a soldier not to speak politically, so he himself would refrain from political statements,” he said.

“No wonder that when the defense minister is not functioning and there is no one to set the policy, a leadership vacuum is created,” Ben-Gvir added. “I will emphasize: I have no intention of interfering with the punishment, but the policy will change.”

Outgoing Defense Minister Benny Gantz held a “special press conference” on Wednesday to address the issue, saying he backed the IDF’s officers – and therefore respected the fact that they, and they alone, have the authority and responsibility to treat the Hebron incidents as they see fit.

“I am sure that they will never bow their heads to political pressure,” Gantz said.

“Netanyahu knows fully well the significance of words and the outcome of incitement – I call on him not to enable the abomination at a bloody price for the state of society in Israel. It is prohibited to drive a wedge between IDF soldiers and their commanders,” he added.

“If the words that I am hearing turn into actions, I will be very concerned for the IDF’s existence as the army of the people. Whoever loves IDF soldiers does not harm their commanders. Whoever loves IDF soldiers does not play dangerous political games on their back,” he said.

Givati soldiers assault activists

One soldier was filmed placing an activist in a choke-hold before striking him, and another was filmed swearing at him. The second soldier was sentenced on Tuesday to 10 days imprisonment after he confessed to his actions.

“Ben-Gvir will create order here. You’ve lost it. All you do here is finished, the whole brothel you make here,” the soldier was filmed saying. “You do everything against the law. I decide what the law is and you are acting against the law.”

All soldiers involved were suspended from operational duty pending an investigation by the Military Police and Israel Police. The findings will be forwarded to the Military Attorney-General’s office.

The soldier seen cursing in the video later sent a letter to Central Command head Maj.-Gen. Yehuda Fuchs and Givati commander Moati, asking that his sentence be dismissed or lessened.

“I said a few words without any intention of humiliating the IDF or committing an offense and I now find myself going to jail. I was under a lot of pressure during the incident and I only request consideration of everything going on there,” he said, adding, “I ask for forgiveness. I understand my mistake.”

Ben-Gvir attacks sentencing of soldiers

Following the judgment given to the troops, Ben-Gvir said it crossed a redline.

“It cannot be that anarchists curse, spit and attack our heroic soldiers,” he said. “The warriors responded to these attacks. You can take them aside and reexamine their reactions but to send them to prison for 10 days? That’s unreasonable, disproportionate and simply incorrect.”

The IDF has given its support to Alfasi, with senior officers like Fuchs calling him a “warrior and an excellent commander.”

Alfasi was awarded a commendation medal for his work in 2014 Operation Protective Edge for volunteering to enter a cross-border attack tunnel in Gaza to try to find the body of missing soldier Hadar Goldin and his squad.

Abuse and threats against IDF commander

Following the punishment given to the troops, right-wing activists launched an online assault against him as well as sending threats to his cellphone.

Backing the troops and officers, Fuchs said, “I expect my soldiers to behave appropriately despite pressure and provocations. Unnecessary physical or verbal violence: This is not our way.

“The behavior of the soldiers is an unusual and serious case; a soldier must not behave and express himself in a way that contradicts the values of the IDF with an emphasis on the value of statehood and the purity of weapons,” he said. “I support the soldiers of the IDF in any use of force required to remove a threat. At the same time, we will not accept incidents in which soldiers will go too far and use their force and authority unnecessarily.”

Former deputy chief of staff Maj.-Gen. Yair Golan said Alfasi has served in the “most difficult and most complex” arenas and positions “with faith and great talent while demonstrating exceptional courage and leadership. I have no doubt that he is an excellent military officer, and in one of the most difficult, most complex, most ungrateful places: Hebron.”

Golan said the troops in question “committed a grave sin against the statehood of the army” by letting their personal opinions prevail over their professional commitment and “turned their unit into a body serving a political faction, while using unjustified violence against citizens – the citizens they swore to protect.”

According to Golan, although the punishment given to the soldiers was too light, “the serial flamethrower [Ben-Gvir] – the designated minister who never served in the IDF, the convicted felon who harassed IDF soldiers endlessly for his provocative actions – he immediately jumped at the opportunity.”

The supporters of Netanyahu and Ben-Gvir, he continued, “want a frightened police force and a terror-ridden state that serves personalities from a defined and distinct political camp – their camp. They harm the state’s holy of holies: the IDF. They are the most dangerous enemy of Israel. They endanger our ability to live with each other. They will always prefer sectoral considerations over national ones.”

Eliav Breuer contributed to this report.