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As border guard’s death criticized, IDF chief denies soldiers overly restricted

Kohavi says soldiers ‘equipped with all tools’ to handle threats, and ‘claims to the contrary are baseless’; Barel Hadaria Shmueli was shot at point-blank range at Gaza border

Judah Ari Gross is The Times of Israel's military correspondent.

IDF Chief of Staff Aviv Kohavi speaks at a ceremony in Jerusalem, on August 11, 2021. (Israel Defense Forces)
IDF Chief of Staff Aviv Kohavi speaks at a ceremony in Jerusalem, on August 11, 2021. (Israel Defense Forces)

Israel Defense Forces chief Aviv Kohavi defended the military on Thursday against ongoing criticism of its top brass over the death of a Border Police sniper, who was shot by a Palestinian gunman at point-blank range last month during a riot along the Gaza border.

After the border guard, Barel Hadaria Shmueli, was shot and critically wounded during the riot on August 21, allegations emerged that the reason why the shooter was able to get so close to the border barrier was due to overly-restrictive rules of engagement, which prevented troops from opening fire at the rioters as they approached the border.

Shmueli died of his injuries on Monday, leading such claims to intensify. In particular, some opponents of the current government have asserted that it has imposed new restrictions on troops along the border, due to its dependence on the Arab Ra’am party.

In a speech, Kohavi dismissed allegations that the rules of engagement or a lack of equipment were to blame for Shmueli’s death.

“The soldiers and commanders are equipped with all of the tools and with open-fire rules that are clear. Claims to the contrary are baseless and are nothing but a total lie,” Kohavi said, speaking at a ceremony marking the entrance of Maj. Gen. David Salame into the position of commander of the navy.

“Any soldier that feels threatened and at risk, in war or peacetime, is allowed to, needs to, and is required to take action and remove the threat,” Kohavi added.

Earlier this week, Shmueli’s family called for a “rigorous, objective and independent investigation” into the circumstances of the shooting. This would be an uncommon and dramatic move, as such incidents are typically handled within the chain of command, not with an independent investigation.

“We have learned from Barel’s friends that the instructions were vague at best,” said the family’s attorney, Ran Cohen Rochberger. “There was an instruction to contain the [riot] and avoid unnecessary harm [to Palestinians].”

Border Police officer Barel Shmueli (left) killed in a shooting on the Gaza border, on August 21, 2021, and Prime Minister Naftali Bennett (right). (Border Police; Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

Rochberger said that the family will not accept “the passing of responsibility to a low-ranking officer… we’re not looking for culprits but we are demanding an investigation across all ranks. It’s clear that the failure here was multi-systemic… not just in the Border Police but in all of the IDF.”

Kohavi said that the military was still conducting its investigation into the incident.

“We are completing a thorough investigation that will leave no stone unturned. This is an investigation that is based solely on professional and ethical standards,” he said.

Disputing the claims that soldiers on the border were not allowed to open fire, Kohavi noted that many rioters have been shot over the years.

The mother of Border Police officer Barel Hadaria Shmueli speaks at his funeral in Tel Aviv, on August 30, 2021. Shmueli died nine days after being shot in the head during riots on the Gaza border. (Police spokesperson)

“In many cases, violent activities have broken out and weapons were used along the border, and many terrorists were hit by IDF soldiers,” he said.

Shmueli’s family has been outspoken in its criticism of the military and the government over his death. Right-wing lawmakers in the opposition have similarly lambasted the coalition for the shooting.

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