Ben Gvir said mulling general who called Gaza operation a ‘religious war’ as top cop

Ofer Winter also reportedly floated as possible candidate to head new national guard force the far-right minister is seeking to establish under his control

Brig. Gen. Ofer Winter attends a Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee meeting at the Knesset, on October 22, 2018. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)
Brig. Gen. Ofer Winter attends a Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee meeting at the Knesset, on October 22, 2018. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir is reportedly considering for the next police commissioner an IDF general whose stalled rise in the military has been decried by right-wing activists.

Sources told the Haaretz daily that IDF Brig. Gen. Ofer Winter, a controversial figure whose fighting tactics and statements to troops have been criticized, was also floated as a possible leader of a new national guard that Ben Gvir wants to establish as a force under his direct control that will be separate from the Israel Police.

Winter has not been asked about about potentially serving as police chief and Ben Gvir, who leads the far-right Otzma Yehudit party, has not spoken to him about it, according to the report. An IDF spokesperson told the newspaper it had not been contacted on the matter.

Ben Gvir’s office denied the report as “speculation,” saying a search for the next commissioner has yet to begin.

The current police commissioner Kobi Shabtai announced last week he will end his term in January 2024 after months of uneasy ties with Ben Gvir, who has sought to exert more influence over the police.

The national security ministry oversees the police force and Border Police. Ben Gvir also wants to form a new volunteer national guard that would be under his direct control, drawing criticism from, among others, Shabtai.

Winter is currently studying at the Reichman University-based International Institute for Counter-Terrorism, according to the IDF.

He is often held up as a shining example of the national-religious community, which has traditionally struggled to reach the top ranks of the military.

Right-wing activists have repeatedly called for him to be promoted in the military, and expressed outrage in May following the announcement of senior IDF promotions that did not include Winter, who was one of 14 brigadier generals up for advancement to major general.

National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir, right, and Police Commissioner Kobi Shabtai at the Israel Police Independence Day ceremony at the National Headquarters of the Israel Police in Jerusalem April 20, 2023. (Oren Ben Hakoon/Flash90)

But his tenure has been marked with controversial actions and statements, including painting fighting against Gaza as a holy war.

Winter commanded the Givati Brigade forces in the bloody “Black Friday” battle in the city of Rafah in southern Gaza on August 1, 2014, during Operation Protective Edge. The fighting there, marked by intense Israeli shelling, became a central issue in a United Nations report on the war, with accusations that war crimes had been committed. In its own investigation, the Israeli military identified failures in how the battle was waged, but no criminal acts.

Winter came under criticism during the war for a letter to his subordinate officers in which he described the operation as a religious war against a “blasphemous” foe.

In media interviews, the officer also described his troops as being protected in battle by “clouds of glory,” raising concerns among religious freedom activists that Winter was “theocratizing” the military.

Winter was also later accused of passing along sensitive information about the war effort to then-economy minister Naftali Bennett, bypassing the usual chain of command. He received a rebuke over the matter.

He was promoted from colonel to brigadier general in 2015 and was made chief of staff for the Central Command. In 2017, he was appointed military secretary to then-defense minister Avigdor Liberman, and only in 2019 was he given command over a division. Winter served as head of the Central Command’s 98th Division until September 2022, and has been without a role since.

In the army’s normal trajectory for promotion, Winter would have been on track to take command of a division in 2018, but he was passed over for promotion by then-IDF chief of staff Gadi Eisenkot.

National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir visits the Tel Aviv Police Forward Command Center with Police Commissioner Koi Shabtai, March 1, 2023. (Courtesy: National Security Ministry)

According to Haaretz, Ben Gvir is set to announce a replacement for Shabtai in October.

The standard term for police commissioners in Israel is three years, but it is often extended by a fourth year.

Emanuel Fabian contributed to this report.

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