The rebellion of Israel’s second army

Yagil Levy

+972 Magazine  /  December 26, 2022

Outgoing IDF Chief of Staff Aviv Kochavi hands over to his successor a ‘policing army’ that is more autonomous, settler-led, and lethal than ever.

Next month, IDF Chief of Staff Aviv Kochavi is set to hand over the reins of Israel’s military forces to his successor, Major General Herzi Halevi. Among the many matters Halevi will be taking up — including questions around the future of Israel’s conscription model — perhaps his biggest challenge will be how the army tackles its main arena of operations, which is subject to deep disputes among Israel’s political and military echelons: the policing warfare against Palestinians living under Israeli rule in the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip.

This is assuming that the signing of a maritime border deal with Lebanon holds off a potential third Israel-Lebanon war, while an attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities is also not expected imminently. Kochavi has not often been involved in the policing missions in the West Bank, but it seems that what happens there is liable to cast a shadow over his tenure — as shown by the furor when an Israeli soldier assaulted a left-wing activist in Hebron last month.

When it comes to the Palestinians, the Israeli military is in fact splintered into two armies, a structure that came into being in the wake of the Second Intifada in the early 2000s. Alongside the “official” army, a “policing” force has emerged in the Israeli-controlled West Bank. The “official” army, the IDF, has a high command that is generally subordinated to political control, while the “policing army,” although not an official entity, is an organization with clear and unique characteristics.

The policing army comprises three main elements: an armed settler militia operating under the auspices of the military and which acts as a so-called “territorial defense”; the Kfir Brigade, which includes the Haredi Netzah Yehuda Battalion, and is reinforced by combat brigades rotationally deployed to the West Bank; and Border Police squads, which combine police persons and conscripts. These elements are subordinated to the IDF Judea and Samaria Division.

The policing army’s official role is to protect West Bank settlements, to block Palestinian military activity along the Green Line, and to enforce the law over the Jewish and Palestinian populations of the occupied territories. Alongside these forces, the Civil Administration handles civil affairs, the Israel Police deals with criminal offenses, and the Shin Bet tackles security intelligence.

Who gives the orders?

On paper, the policing army is meant to fall under the military hierarchy headed by the IDF Central Command. In practice, however, the picture is more complicated. The boundaries between the policing army and the settler communities it serves are blurred, as a result of joint units, deep social ties, and extensive staffing of the units by settlers. Control over the policing army is therefore structured not as a hierarchy, but a matrix.

As such, in addition to obeying the official command, the soldiers also follow orders from settlers via Civilian Security Coordinators in the settlements. Many among the troops are influenced by rabbinical rulings, especially those forbidding religious soldiers from participating in the evacuation of settlements in accordance with court rulings. The commanders are deterred by the settlers’ aggressive methods while the combatants are impacted by their social ties with the settlements, thus affecting army operations by, for example, “foot-dragging” when settlers break the law.

The activities of human rights groups such as B’Tselem, MachsomWatch, and Breaking the Silence, which monitor the policing army, only very partially balance out these oversight mechanisms performed by the settlers. The result is a clear army bias in favor of the settlers.

Indeed, the cumulative record in the occupied territories irrefutably shows that the Israeli army is not just an enabler, but in many ways a sponsor, of settler violence. It turns a blind eye to the establishment of unauthorized settlement outposts; it announced in 2009 that evacuating settlements was not part of its remit; it ignores vigilante violence against Palestinians and sometimes even partakes in it; and much more.

Thus, in many ways, the policing army is essentially functioning as a gray arm of the state to surreptitiously advance creeping annexation in Area C of the West Bank (which is under full Israeli control). Against this backdrop, the activity of the policing army does not reflect the impotence of law enforcement vis-à-vis the settlers, but rather an intentional effort that relies on the settlers’ violence. It is in this light that we can understand the systematic failure to punish soldiers who harm Palestinians. For example, from 2017 to 2021, the odds of a complaint regarding harm caused to Palestinians by a soldier culminating in an indictment filed against the soldier were just 0.87 percent, as documented by Yesh Din.

Whatever the explanation, the policing army’s effectiveness comes precisely from its ability to obscure the structure of control over it. Its legitimacy is built on a set-up according to which field operations are conducted by settler militias — mostly hilltop youth and “price tag” activists — who have prevailed over “official Israel,” which is ostensibly committed to international law but meets difficulties to fulfill its responsibilities to it.

This legitimacy, however, was threatened by the Elor Azaria affair in March 2016. The Kfir Brigade soldier was caught on camera fatally shooting Abdel Fatah al-Sharif, who was lying wounded on the ground after he and an accomplice had tried to stab Israeli soldiers at Tel Rumeida in Hebron. The army’s decision to try Azaria, and the court’s decision to convict him for manslaughter, provoked an unprecedented wave of protest against the military, alongside expressions of support for the soldier.

The affair exposed the policing army’s autonomy, while the recording of the killing showed how the scene in Hebron was run not by the army, but by the settlers. “Who controls the field and gives the orders?” asked Uvda, Channel 12’s flagship documentary program. It is this prevailing atmosphere that encouraged Azaria to pull the trigger that day. His crime further exposed how much the military’s formal hierarchy is in fact constantly disrupted, not merely as an exceptional event, and also showed how violence is used outside the framework of the law, yet still under its auspices.

And so, the Israeli military — concerned at the collapse of its legitimacy system in the West Bank under the very contradictions it has created — has been compelled to fight for the legitimacy of its policing arm. It was forced to counter the perception that settlers are in charge of the policing army, and that it does not impose or try to impose law and order on them. Against this backdrop echoed the call of then-Chief of Staff Gadi Eizenkot in 2016: “Those who wish to have a gang ethos should say so.”

‘Lethal, efficient, and innovative’

Azaria’s prosecution aside, it is doubtful that Eizenkot worked to address the structural conditions that gave the policing army its autonomy, above all by trying to seal the borders between soldiers and settlers. His successor, Kochavi, was not even trying. Under the latter’s tenure, the fragmentation of the IDF into two armies and the autonomization of the policing army has actually been reinforced in a number of ways.

First, the boundaries between the army and the settlers are becoming ever more permeable. Nothing illustrates this better than the latest appointments of senior commanders in the policing army, appointments overseen by the chief of staff. Many of these commanders are graduates of religious pre-military academies and hesder yeshivas (that combine Torah studies with army service), and which instill a messianic worldview while educating students to identify with the settlement project. This process ensures that the commanders of policing army units will prevent, in advance, any major clashes with the settlers.

This cultural process is so pronounced that it was even upheld by the distinctly secular Samaria Brigade commander, Colonel Roy Zweig. In April 2022, Zweig ordered his soldiers to repair Joseph’s Tomb in Nablus after it had been damaged by Palestinians. He framed the mission in religious terms, declaring that the site is located on “the land promised to Abraham our father,” and that the soldiers were to act “with force… not like thieves in the night but as sons of kings” — that is, to display military power in the heart of a Palestinian population, while coordinating their actions with the settlers’ leadership. Lest we think this is a coincidence, Zweig declared near the end of his tenure this year that “the settlements and the army are one and the same.”

Second, the Israeli army operates today under the shadow of the Azaria affair that greatly shook the institution. None of the senior officers could have predicted that the trial and conviction of a soldier who shot dead an incapacitated Palestinian would stir up public opinion in the way it did. Through their social groups and even directly through social media, soldiers in the policing army protested against what they saw as the abandonment of a soldier defending himself against an allegedly booby-trapped terrorist. The affair also had ethnic overtones, given Azaria’s Mizrahi background, which further expressed a sense of discrimination at the hands of Israel’s largely Ashkenazi elite.

Indeed, in July 2016, as the Azaria trial was ongoing, polls showed that among the “hard” right, about half do not see alignment between values of the military’s senior command and those of the general public, thus reflecting a growing rift between the army and the right wing, which largely staffed the policing troops in the West Bank.

The realization of this rift led Eizenkot to change the military discourse. Under his tenure, the army, imitating the legacy of America’s Vietnam War, openly took pride in the number of Palestinians it killed in the occupied territories, presenting the figure as an achievement. Kochavi continued this phenomenon: in January 2019, he caused controversy upon his appointment as army chief, when he undertook to present an army “that is lethal, efficient, and innovative” — that is, an army that generates death.

This spirit of lethality has spread in the policing army. After a series of individual Palestinian attacks in cities inside Israel in early 2022, Kochavi did not push back against the political echelon in the way Eizenkot had before him during a wave of individualized knife attacks in 2015-16, known as the “Knife Intifada.” Back then, the army aimed to prevent a third intifada and therefore somewhat restrained the fire policy. Under Kochavi, the trend has reversed. By the end of 2021, the army had further eased its rules of engagement, officially permitting soldiers to shoot Palestinians who throw stones or Molotov cocktails — even after the act, when they no longer posed a threat. This shift has been highly visible during the army’s incursions into West Bank cities in an ongoing operation known as “Break the Wave” since March 2022, and in which the killing of Palestinians in the territory has significantly increased.

Nothing remains of the proud rhetoric army commanders once espoused about avoiding lethality, that is, decreasing Palestinian casualties. From the moment Kochavi began educating lethality as a value, the cultural codes in the policing army changed. Not only were the open-fire regulations loosened, but their interpretation by soldiers enjoyed greater flexibility — and, in many ways, was actively encouraged.

This was demonstrated, for example, by the army’s dismissal of a Golani Brigade combatant in December 2020, after he was filmed avoiding shooting at a Palestinian attacker who threw a Molotov cocktail at him, missed, and then escaped. In a letter to his subordinates following the incident, the brigade’s commander wrote that “engaging the enemy and eliminating him is a fundamental value.” However, this statement had come before the open-fire regulations were formally loosened to allow shooting at Palestinians who throw firebombs and flee without posing a threat anymore. In this case and others, the mantra of lethality clearly seeped down, creating norms that enlarged the gray area outside of official instructions. It is not for nothing, then, that the army refrains from punishing soldiers who deviate from its orders and harm Palestinians.

A blue-collar combatants’ rebellion

The third major shift under Kochavi arises “bottom up.” During the 2010s, many reports showed how young people from wealthy groups in Israeli society were over-represented in the army’s technological and intelligence units (such as Unit 8200). This often opened their way to greater economic opportunities after being discharged, testifying to the ongoing barriers faced by disadvantaged groups in Israel.

At the same time, the army’s combat ranks — especially those of the policing army — were being staffed by increasing numbers from religious communities, middle- and lower-class Mizrahim, settlers, immigrants, and Druze, and women. In other words, groups from outside the secular (mainly Ashkenazi) middle class, which historically formed the backbone of the army, were now bearing the brunt of policing combat.

Kochavi watched from the sidelines as this pipeline took shape. He described the army as a national placement project that provides recruits with 21st-century skills, such that Israel’s technology industry cannot grow without it. This project, he boasted, funnels hundreds of high-tech workers into the economy every year. Yet Kochavi did not mention combat troops among those whom he praised for contributing to the economy, underlining the low economic value he placed on those carrying out the riskiest roles in the army. This symbolic process, along with the impacts of military “tracking” amplified by identity politics and the exposure of the increasing rates of exemptions from conscription, has instigated a slow but gradual “blue-collar combatants’ uprising” within the policing army.

This “uprising” was evidenced across several incidents. Two years before the Azaria affair, in April 2014, a controversy erupted surrounding the punishment of a soldier who had been filmed shoving and cursing at a young Palestinian who confronted him in Hebron. The punishment of the soldier, a Be’er Sheva resident named David Adamov (known as “David HaNahlawi”), prompted an unprecedented wave of protest through social media, in which other soldiers sympathized with their peer.

Five years after Azaria, in September 2021, another public outcry emerged following the killing of a Border Police soldier, Be’er Ya’akov resident Barel Hadaria Shmueli, by a Palestinian gunman as he was manning the Israel-Gaza fence; the military, it was claimed, had unnecessarily risked Shmueli’s life. A year later, in November 2022, another uproar broke out against the punishment of the Givati Brigade soldier who assaulted a left-wing Israeli activist in Hebron.

What these events have in common is that they are part of a rebellion by Israel’s sociocultural peripheries who feel frustrated by what they perceive as ingratitude for their service: “dirty” police work that lacks prestige, offers no glorious achievements (but rather just a preservation of the status quo), does not garner the ethos of heroism, and does not lead to high-paying jobs in the labor market.

Political backing

With these grievances, the marginalized groups are rebelling against the official army’s cultural codes, demanding that those codes be changed, and insisting that immunity be granted to soldiers even if they flout the rules. What is important is not these soldiers’ ideological values alone, but rather the ability to leverage their growing critical mass in the policing army to translate their values into a public voice. At the same time, religious soldiers are rebelling — through the pre-military academies and hesder yeshivas that speak in their name — against the existing open-fire regulations, the opening of combat roles to women, and the directives to act against settlers.

These rebellions represent a conflict over the character of the army. They reinforces phenomena such as foot-dragging of the policing combatants vis-à-vis settlers breaking the law, or being trigger-happy against Palestinians. In other words, these bottom-up pressures are aimed at further enhancing the autonomy of the policing army.

Politically, the blue-collar combatants’ rebellion is being expressed through soldiers’ growing support for Itamar Ben Gvir, head of the far-right Otzma Yehudit (Jewish Power) party, who shares the religious-Mizrahi identity of many of the troops. For the first time, they see a politician who understands their plight, who demands the protection of these soldiers from officials who “abandon” them, and who will grant them full immunity even if they have erred.

The Kahanist leader — who is set to become national security minister in charge of the police — treats these blue-collar soldiers as heroes who have been emasculated, and who are being kept from victory by politicians. He speaks to them in their own language, and bestows on the policing army a task with national meaning. For Ben Gvir, the use of violence does not clash with the “values of the IDF,” but rather represents what the army is supposed to symbolize. His growing power ensures that it will become even more difficult for the official army to restrain the policing army, while the separation between the two entities will increase.

This is the legacy Kochavi has left for Herzi Halevi. Kochavi failed to weaken the autonomy of the policing army following the Azaria affair and accepted the blurring boundaries between the units and the settlers; he encouraged a “lethal” fire policy that bred aggressiveness in the West Bank; and he entrenched the tracking practices feeding the policing army with religious and marginalized groups who rise against any effort to restrain it. How will Halevi tackle these issues, if at all? Only time will tell.

Yagil Levy is a professor of political sociology and public policy at the Open University of Israel