Israeli army Chief of Staff’s conundrum: maintaining a ‘lethal’ army, which is not ‘reckless’

Chief of Staff of the Israeli army Aviv Kochavi (Twitter)

Jonathan Ofir

Mondoweiss  /  August 15, 2021

Israeli leaders are forced to balance calls for ‘lethal’ military bravura, essential for garnering Zionist Jewish support internally, with maintaining its image abroad.

On his swearing-in ceremony in January 2019, the current Israeli army Chief of Staff Aviv Kochavi solemnly swore to maintain an army that is a ‘lethal, efficient, and innovative force’.

Now, after a particularly lethal three months in the occupied West Bank, involving 40 killings including the 11-year-old Mohammed al-Alami in his father’s car, Kochavi announced this Wednesday that ‘we will not have recklessness’:

“We will back you (soldiers) up when you act according to orders, but we will not accept exceptions… We will back you up when you use your judgment, even if there are mistakes, but we will not accept recklessness.”

The 67 children Israel killed in Gaza during its recent onslaught in May generated some attention abroad, and the publication of their photos in Haaretz generated widespread anger in Israel. Gideon Levy of Haaretz observed:

“The debate in the media and on social media erupted like a brushfire. It was wild and instructive. Israel was avoiding the dreaded tidings like the plague… No one was talking about the dead children, about the horrifying dimensions of the killing and about the army that committed it. That was not the topic in the least. In an amazing acrobatic display, Israelis summoned up everything they had and more to avoid the truth, evade responsibility and carry on with their usual self-congratulation.”

 So no, these photos were apparently not the cause for Kochavi’s address this week. But children in the West Bank seem to somehow generate some more empathy. Perhaps because the Israeli Jewish population, including many of its colonialist West Bank settlers, are in more regular contact with them – over 100,000 occupied Palestinians work for Jewish Israelis, and the ground soldiers actually see them through their cross hairs and in their daily interaction as occupation soldiers. So the killing of Mohammed al-Alami while his car was driving away and posing no danger to the soldiers who sprayed it with bullets, that did not look good (especially since the Israeli human rights group B’Tselem could show with video that no danger was posed), and it even seemed to garner some remorse among unnamed military officers.

On Friday, Haaretz military analyst Amos Harel published an article titled ‘Why Israel’s military chief took his time in calling for restraint over killings of Palestinians’. Harel relates to Al-Alami’s killing as ‘the most serious’ of the killing incidents in the past weeks, yet almost trivially notes that ‘based on past experience, it’s unlikely that the soldiers will be put on trial’. Yet there is a supposedly remarkable demonstration of contrition cited by Harel, alas of an unnamed officer:

“Nevertheless, a senior officer told Haaretz that the allegation that commanders are insensitive to what happened is also groundless. ‘That incident made my stomach turn,’ the officer said. ‘When a Palestinian child is killed by soldiers’ fire, I have a sleepless night. It’s a tragic story, not a political statement. The worst incident that could possibly happen occurred there – and the tragedy is also that of the soldier who opened fire.’”

Notice this – the Israeli soldiers feel, too. Their stomachs can actually turn. And when they kill a Palestinian child, that’s also a tragedy for them, not just for the dead child.

This is what is known as ‘shooting and crying’ in Israeli culture, and I would definitely say that it is stomach-turning – because of that sickening self-righteousness. We don’t need actual justice – being the most moral army, we pay with our conscience and half a tear.

Harel has an interesting theory on the delayed timing, as it were, of Kochavi’s statement: Elor Azarya.

The Azarya effect

Azarya is the soldier-medic who shot an incapacitated Palestinian suspect, Abdel Fatah al-Sharif, in the head at point blank, back in March 2016. After a highly politicized trial and a short nine-month prison sentence, Azarya returned home to a hero’s welcome.

Azarya’s act was filmed, so it became a considerable PR issue. Then army Chief of Staff Gadi Eisenkot (author of the murderous ‘Dahiya Docrtine’ entailing ‘disproportionate’ civilian destruction), said that Azarya had ‘erred’ – although his action was in line with instructions and statements from across the political and security spectrum – including those by current Foreign Minister and Alternate Prime Minister Yair Lapid, who said in 2015 that ‘whoever takes out a knife or a screwdriver – should be shot dead’. Lapid was emphatic:

Not to hesitate. There will be full legal backing. The state gives full legal backing.’

The admonishment of Azarya’s actions from Eisenkot (a position which was shared by then Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon), was alas not shared by 2/3 of the Israeli public at the time. Azarya was viewed by his many supporters as a political scapegoat, and that going too hard on him might cause too many dilemmas for soldiers who might hesitate in their next shooting. This was popularly referred to as the ‘Azarya effect’, but the ‘Azarya effect’ also got another meaning – a deterrence of the military top, to halt them from expressing critique of soldiers too often or too quickly. Harel notes:

 “Over the years, the senior command in the Israel Defense Forces has learned that every public statement relating to the conflict with the Palestinians is liable to trip them up with a vocal fringe on the right and to affect their prospects for promotion down the line. One person who dared take an opposite stance was former IDF Chief of Staff Gadi Eisenkot, for whom the case of Elor Azaria, who shot a Palestinian who had already been subdued, was the moral watershed of his term and made him the target of systematic attacks from the right. Kochavi is being extremely leery of making any sort of similar remark.”

Eisenkot had also made another remark, just a month before the Azarya killing, which caused some uproar in Israel:

“When there’s a 13-year-old girl holding scissors or a knife and there is some distance between her and the soldiers, I don’t want to see a soldier open fire and empty his magazine at a girl like that.”

For most people, it is obvious. But in Israel, where suspects are regularly executed, it isn’t. Notice how Eisenkot goes over the top with ‘empty his magazine’ – he did not say to not execute, just to not empty the whole magazine. An M-16 rifle has magazines of 20-30 rounds, so 10 could do just fine. Alas, if it is as visual as Azarya’s single shot to the head, it could be an ‘error’.

As a soldier, it must be really hard to navigate between the statements and suggestions of Israeli military officials, as well as politicians, and work out what to do. Do we, or do we not, shoot to kill ? Was that a screwdriver? What if it was a wrench, like in the case of Shadi Omar Salim, the plumber from Beita, who was killed by Israeli soldiers last week while reportedly trying to fix the village water supply ? He, too, was a ‘suspect’.

Israeli military leaders apparently have to tread a very thin line. They have to watch out to not come in too early, nor too hard, on those who commit these killings, lest they hurt their future career prospects. And in Israel, being the head of the army is not a final goal – it is often a direct path towards premiership, as Benny Gantz hoped (in vain) it would be for him – which is why he boasted of bringing Gaza back to the “stone age” when he was Chief of Staff, in his entry campaign into politics.

Israel has to balance between its ‘lethal’ military bravura and violence, which is essential for garnering Zionist Jewish support internally, and its image abroad, where too many killings seem to generate some discontent. Perhaps it is even to balance its own self-image, as enlightened, and most moral, amidst the killings. One needs to be careful, not to be too ‘reckless’, so as not to disrupt that fine balance.

Jonathan Ofir is an Israeli musician, conductor and blogger/writer based in Denmark