Middle East Eye / April 9, 2023
Army commander who once urged soldiers to kill Palestinians as they flee is now in the running to head a controversial new security unit.
The Israeli government approved earlier this month the plan to establish a “national guard” under the direct command of far-right minister of national security, Itamar Ben-Gvir.
Palestinians say the force, which will focus on working against “riots” or “crime” in Palestinian areas within Israel, will be used to target them.
The force, which has been opposed by senior Israeli security figures, will have a one billion shekels budget (around $277m) and employ around 2,000 guards who will have the same authority as police officers.
Ben-Gvir has already started mulling candidates to command the force to ensure its agenda aligns with his.
According to Israeli newspaper Haaretz, one of the leading candidates is Avinoam Emunah, a retired colonel known for encouraging his soldiers to enjoy killing Palestinians, refusing to work with a woman, and for his strict religious views.
Middle East Eye takes a closer look at his career and what his potential appointment to Ben-Gvir’s “national guard” could mean.
Among the various roles Emunah played in the military, he notably served in the infamous elite paratroopers Unit 101 and rose to command it.
Unit 101 is one of the Israeli military’s most notorious units. It was established in 1953 and first led by former general and prime minister Ariel Sharon, who commanded it to terrorise Palestinian, Jordanian and Egyptian civilian communities beyond Israel’s borders. It carried out impromptu punitive strikes against civilians and was frequently accused of inventing its own missions rather than following instructions from the military chief of staff.
Emunah’s service in Unit 101 included heavy fighting and widespread repression campaigns against Palestinians during the Second Intifada, the invasion of Lebanon in 2006 and the war on Gaza in 2014.
The 43-year-old’s military career set him on a path of rapid advancement, apart from a two-year freeze as part of a reprimand which he received while commanding the Maglan Unit.
A soldier in the unit was seriously injured under Emunah’s watch after jumping from a moving jeep into a bush as part of a traditional initiation ceremony of the unit.
Nevertheless, Emunah became the commander of the Israeli military’s tactical command school and commanded the Hermon division in the occupied Syrian Golan Heights.
Emunah is also known for his very pious and Orthodox religious views. Although he came from a secular family, he became a strict observant Jew.
In the military, he insisted on spending much of his time praying and studying holy texts alongside military operations, even to the point that he was criticised for insisting on staying awake at night to study religious texts before important and dangerous missions.
During his command of a garrison in the occupied Syrian Golan Heights, he refused to accept a woman as his spokesperson, citing religious reasons.
After 24 years of military service, Emunah left the military last year when his promotion to command the paratroopers division was denied.
Sources in the military reportedly said that Emunah’s overenthusiasm for the use of force as commander, rather than his religious zeal, was the reason behind him being denied the promotion, according to right-wing religious newspaper Arutz Sheva.
According to the sources, Emunah punished his soldiers who did not use enough violence in the Gaza Strip.
A video filmed during the 2014 war on Gaza showed him telling his soldiers that it’s going to “much less pleasant” to be an Arab [Palestinian].
“Much of the time, you’ll be seeing them fleeing… Kill them as they flee,” he is heard telling his soldiers in the video.
“Smile, guys. You should enjoy it. Try to enjoy it.”
He also referred to Palestinian fighters as “rats”.
In a 2015 article published in an army magazine, he dubbed the “smile-kill-enjoy” motto as “words to spur on” the troops, according to Haaretz.
Pinhas Hoshen, one of Emunah’s soldiers, testified that the commander reacted emotionally and strongly against threats to Israelis in the occupied West Bank. He never, however, acknowledged that as an officer of an occupying army, his obligation under international law is first and foremost to protect the occupied Palestinian population.
When Emunah left the army, he was praised for his services by opposition MP Matan Kahana in an open letter.
Some fear his words, as a member of the opposition, could whitewash Emunah’s anti-Palestinian sentiments to the Israeli public and make objections to his appointment complicated.
Many have already raised fears that Ben-Gvir – himself notorious for incitement against Palestinians and supporting a terror-designated group – will politicise the force’s command and use it as his own “private militia“.
Shir Hever is a board member of the Jewish Voice for a Just Peace in the Middle East