After outrage, IDF chief apologizes for drill simulating settler kidnapping attack

Herzi Halevi says scenario shouldn’t have been practiced, ‘we are sorry to anyone who was hurt’; remarks come after Netanyahu demands investigation

Emanuel (Mannie) Fabian is The Times of Israel's military correspondent

IDF Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Herzi Halevi speaks at a military conference, February 6, 2024. (Israel Defense Forces)
IDF Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Herzi Halevi speaks at a military conference, February 6, 2024. (Israel Defense Forces)

Israel Defense Forces Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Herzi Halevi on Tuesday apologized for a drill the military carried out a night earlier, in which troops simulated a kidnapping attack carried out by settlers in the West Bank.

Halevi’s apology came following harsh criticism by far-right lawmakers and activists against the drill, which they described as “unrealistic,” despite such acts by Jewish extremists occurring in the past, notably the kidnapping and murder of teenager Mohammed Abu Khdeir in 2014.

“The IDF fights in all arenas, and in Judea and Samaria [the West Bank], forces face brutal terrorism in a complex environment. The exercise carried out yesterday was designed to prepare the forces to deal with a wide variety of scenarios, with the aim of improving their readiness,” Halevi said during a visit to the Gaza Strip.

“However, the scenario in question should not have been practiced and is an error,” he said. “We will investigate and learn, and we are sorry to anyone who was hurt by this.”

Halevi said troops in the West Bank, led by Central Command chief Maj. Gen. Yehuda Fox, “work around the clock while risking their lives for the security of the residents.”

Fox had come under attack online by settler activists in the wake of the drill. The Central Command and the general in charge, which oversees military operations in the West Bank, are regularly criticized by far-right politicians and activists.

Head of the IDF Central Command, Maj. Gen. Yehuda Fox speaks to reporters from the Judea Regional Brigade base near the West Bank city of Hebron, August 21, 2023. (Emanuel Fabian/Times of Israel)

Earlier Tuesday, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu released a statement demanding “answers and an IDF investigation” into the exercise.

“This fictitious scenario is disconnected from reality, inappropriate and does injustice to an entire and precious community of settlers at a time when many of them are fighting fiercely and even falling for the defense of Israel,” he said. “I’m not ready to accept such heartlessness towards our brothers and sisters in Judea and Samaria.”

War cabinet minister Benny Gantz then criticized Netanyahu, saying the drill had been “a mistake” but accusing the prime minister of utilizing it “in order to harm the IDF and [Israeli] unity for political reasons.”

The IDF said Monday that the kidnapping scenario, part of a large-scale exercise in the West Bank, was just one of more than 100 scenarios that were drilled, and is among the “extreme scenarios.”

Footage from the drill, which simulated settlers abducting a Palestinian in response to a terror attack, showed that several soldiers were wearing vests marking them as the “enemy force,” a common practice in military exercises.

Soldiers wearing ‘enemy forces’ vests are seen in a video from an IDF exercise that included a simulation of Israeli settlers kidnapping Palestinians. (Screenshot/X; used in accordance with Clause 27a of the Copyright Law)

The IDF apologized for marking the soldiers pretending to be settlers in the drill as the opposing force.

There has been substantial documentation and reporting on rising settler violence in recent months following the Hamas-led October 7 attack on Israel, and Shin Bet chief Ronen Bar reportedly warned the cabinet of the repercussions in late October.

The attacks have often targeted property, and have included stone-throwings at passing cars, assaults and even alleged killings, with the vast majority of cases going unprosecuted, according to rights groups.

In the 18 months before Hamas’s devastating October 7 onslaught on Israel — in which thousands of terrorists murdered some 1,200 people and kidnapped another 255, mostly civilians — the West Bank was already seeing its highest levels of unrest in decades. Confrontations there have risen sharply since Israel launched its retaliatory offensive on Gaza, aiming to destroy Hamas and return the hostages.

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