The Israeli army commander and the Jewish mutation

Jonathan Ofir

Mondoweiss  / June 3, 2022

“The army and the settlement enterprise are one and the same” — a Colonel in Israel’s occupying army says the quiet part about Zionism out loud. It has always been a messianic religious movement.

On Sunday, Israeli Col. Roi Zweig said:

The army and the settlement enterprise are one and the same.

Zweig is commander of the Samaria Brigade, and he was speaking in the Elon Moreh national-religious settlement just northeast of Nablus in the northern Occupied Palestinian West Bank, at its religious Yeshiva seminary. The Colonel’s statement was not a slip, he was elaborate:

It has often been said that the army and the settlements work together. I disagree with that, I think the army and the settlement enterprise are one and the same… Anyone who says that the army and the settlers work together is drawing a distinction between the two populations.

The event took place on Jerusalem Day, the most notorious Israeli nationalist day celebrating Israel’s 1967 capture and flagrantly illegal annexation of East Jerusalem, a day which includes the “flag march” where tens of thousands of Israelis rush through East Jerusalem with youths regularly chanting “death to the Arabs“. The event included the head of the settler Samaria Regional Council Yossi Dagan, whom Zweig refers to as “my dear friend Yossi”.

Zweig’s words are egregious when you look at what they are saying – the settlers are not citizens or civilians as such – they are a kind of army, working together with the actual army for some holy mission. This is a blatant rhetorical cancellation of the principle of distinction – yet it actually confirms what we have been seeing and increasingly so in the past few years – settlers attacking Palestinians not only with army protection, but also with active assistance – sometimes with soldiers literally handing over their weapons to the settlers.

But it’s a great danger to erase that distinction completely. That principle of distinction stands at the core of international laws of war, it means there’s a difference between a civilian and a soldier – otherwise, there are simply no protected people – and that means not just Palestinians, whom Zweig cares little about – but also Jews, whom he cares a lot about.

Surely for this reason, the Israeli army Chief of Staff Aviv Kochavi reportedly decided that Zweig should be reprimanded for his comments, and also for the fact that he didn’t coordinate his appearance at the event with the army.  The “clarification conversation” as it was dubbed by the army, was handled by the Judea and Samaria Division commander Avi Blot. According to The Times of Israel, Zweig’s comments “sparked criticism from left-wing pundits, who charged they were further proof of an inappropriately close relationship between the Israel Defense Forces and West Bank settlers, which they say comes at the expense of Palestinians and prevents soldiers from acting against settlers who break the law.”

This is the supposed political correction from the army leadership. But look what happened then: Bezalel Smotrich, the leader of Religious Zionism party, wouldn’t have any of that. Smotrich hit back at the army decision to reprimand Zweig, said that Zweig’s comments were completely accurate and that “a thousand humiliating capitulations by the IDF’s senior command to attacks from the left and the Haaretz newspaper will not change this.”  

And that is the voice that the religious settlers really listen to – Smotrich and Zweig, not Kochavi and Blot (and certainly not Haaretz).

This is not the first time Zweig has done a stunt that embarrassed the army. In April, he was in charge of protecting the renovation of Joseph’s Tomb, a site just on the eastern outskirts of Nablus, less than 3 miles from Elon Moreh, a site that is an attraction for those religious settlers. The army tried to keep it under the radar for security reasons, but Zweig shouted it out in the media and had it broadcast live. He told the soldiers that they had entered the tomb “not as thieves in the night, but as sons of kings” and that “we too are privileged to restore the honor of the land and the people of Israel.”

This messianic rhetoric is reminiscent of another fanatic religious commander, Brig. Gen. Ofer Winter, who in 2014, as commander of the Givati Brigade, called upon his soldiers to fight a holy war in Gaza in the name of the God of Israel, against “the enemy that defiles his name”. Winter was singularly responsible for the perhaps the most egregious war-crime in those 51 days of death and destruction – the so-called “Black-Friday” bombing of Rafah on August 1st, an attempt to kill Israel’s own captured soldier Hadar Goldin under the notorious Hannibal Directive, the principle of which is to pummel the area so as to ensure that no hostage negotiations need to take place. Winter’s order of maximal fire with thousands of bombs, missiles and shells in a dense residential area, caused the death of between 135 and 200 civilians within a few hours. Winter has since been promoted.

This is crazy but it’s very much the zeitgeist of the Israeli army, as defined by Winter and Zweig. They are running a holy war, and they are pulling out all the religious stops. And who will stop them? No one is.

This is the “Jewish mutation” as Haaretz journalist Amira Hass has recently called it:

Is there now in all the world’s countries a single responsible adult who will say openly: “The hell with it, this Jewish mutation that is developing there in the Middle East – in other words, the State of Israel – has lost it. Freaked out, lost its mind, gone crazy. Because of its military, nuclear and high-tech power, combined with all the religious fervor, because of its alliance with the United States, this needs to worry us. Very much so.”

But I think this is the spot to remind that the supposed secular liberals like defense Minister Benny Gantz might be less religiously explicit, less “Jewish” as it were, but their nationalist fervor on behalf of the Jewish State can be just as unhinged. When Gantz entered politics in 2019, he boasted of having returned Gaza “to the stone age” as Chief of Staff, during the 2014 onslaught. Ofer Winter called it a holy war, Gantz reaped the secular seeds of destruction.

And I must say it’s all about Zionism. Zionism is the Jewish mutation, this merging of religion with nationalist fervor. I know there are supposedly secular Zionists. But Zionism in its core isn’t really secular, and although there were those who were perhaps naïve enough to believe that that there would be a peaceful Zionism, its settler-colonialist nature is just not accommodating of that peace and coexistence. Some thought that the religious aspect would be subdued or moderated, even though it’s called a Jewish State. But how could it be, when your national motto is really Jewish supremacy? It was clear that things would go this way, even though Israel’s first leaders were supposedly secular. State founder David Ben-Gurion, a supposedly secular person, spoke in outrageously messianic terms once in a while: He referred to the bible as his “deed” for Palestine when speaking to the British Royal Peel Commission in 1936; during Israel’s 1956 war with Egypt, Ben-Gurion said at parliament that Israel had undertaken the campaign not for “defensive purposes but to establish part of the Kingdom of David and Solomon” (per the late Israel Shahak).

Zionism has nurtured this religious fundamentalism. It’s true that nowadays we seem to hear more explicit religious proclamations from military leaders like Zweig and Winter. But whether it comes from them or secular Israelis like Gantz, the result is pretty much the same – they are all seeking to return Palestine to the stone age by asserting Jewish supremacy based upon bronze age mythology. What do you expect when you consider Jews a “nation” and even deny an Israeli nationality in favor of the Jewish supremacy?

I agree with Hass. The hell with it. Israel has lost it. Freaked out, lost its mind, gone crazy. But it’s no surprise, and we should have seen it long ago.

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