The death of Border Police officer Barel Shmueli is tragic. A young soldier sent to protect the Israeli border with the Gaza Strip was shot dead due to an operational mishap and tactical failure.
What is also tragic is the way Shmueli’s death is being used by some parts of the Right as a political tool to attack the government led by Prime Minister Naftali Bennett and Foreign Minister Yair Lapid. This is an ethical and moral assault on Israel that cannot be tolerated.
The first sign of this was when opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu – from his hotel in Hawaii – wrote last week on Facebook that Bennett’s blunder of Shmueli’s name when speaking with his father was “shameful.”
This led to an avalanche of attacks by pro-Netanyahu activists against Bennett and the IDF top brass. Some of these activists went to Shmueli’s funeral last week and called on people to use the occasion to chant “Bennett is a traitor.”
The funeral became so heated that OC Southern Command Maj.-Gen. Eliezer Toledano reportedly had to be escorted away by Border Policemen.
This has to stop. Some things are meant to be off-limits, and that is at least what many Israelis thought, until this past week, when Netanyahu and his supporters showed that even a soldier’s tragic death is a potential tool in their battle against the Bennett-Lapid government.
Everything is legitimate in the fight to bring Netanyahu – who is still on trial for bribery, fraud and breach of trust – back to power; even a soldier’s death and his bereaved parents.
What added to this tragedy was the way Shmueli’s death was managed by the IDF.
Until Wednesday, Chief of General Staff Lt.-Gen. Aviv Kohavi was silent on the matter, refusing to publicly say a word. It seems that he misjudged the public outrage from the tactical failure that allowed a Palestinian gunman to approach the border wall and shoot Shmueli. He also seems to have failed to appreciate the damage this incident would cause the military once it was turned into a political football.
What is happening now is similar to the aftermath of the so-called “Hebron Shooter” incident, when soldier Elor Azaria shot dead a neutralized terrorist in Hebron. Then too, Netanyahu stoked the political flames and took advantage of the incident to score political points with his right-wing base.
The incident was extremely damaging for the military and its relationship with young soldiers and their families. Many wondered whether the IDF supported combat soldiers or preferred legal constraints over giving soldiers the ability to defend themselves.
The difference then was that chief of staff Gadi Eisenkot knew he needed to speak out immediately. He didn’t have to wait two weeks to explain the General Staff’s view of the situation.
What Kohavi said on Wednesday, he could have said a week earlier, in the immediate aftermath of the shooting.
Speaking at a Navy ceremony, the chief of staff explained that soldiers and commanders are equipped with all the tools they need and with clear instructions to open fire when in danger.
Kohavi went on to defend IDF decision-making while engaging in operational activities, stating, the “fog of the battlefield, friction and unexpected events” have an effect on IDF soldiers and commanders.
“Decisions are made quickly and in complex conditions.... Mistakes cannot be avoided,” he said candidly.
Kohavi, who is soon entering his final year in office, has tried to avoid having to weigh in on social issues as chief of staff. This was the case with the way he aggressively pushed through a pension bonus for his fellow career officers, and the way he waited until speaking out about the Gaza shooting incident.
What happens in the IDF is intrinsically connected to what happens in Israeli society. The two play off of one another. Just like Kohavi needed to explain why he was fighting for a pension boost for career officers while not saying a word about the inexcusable wages regular soldiers are paid, he also should have spoken up sooner about the Gaza incident to explain what happened and to throw his support behind his men.