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Hebrew media review

Brothers up in arms

Israel’s tabloids review and reignite the debate over the IDF chief’s statements against the use of excessive firepower

Raoul Wootliff is the Times of Israel's former political correspondent and producer of the Daily Briefing podcast.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Defense Minister Moshe  Ya'alon  and IDF Chief of Staff Gadi Eisenkot speak at a joint press conference on the recent wave of terror, at the Prime Minister's Office in Jerusalem on October 8, 2015. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Defense Minister Moshe Ya'alon and IDF Chief of Staff Gadi Eisenkot speak at a joint press conference on the recent wave of terror, at the Prime Minister's Office in Jerusalem on October 8, 2015. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

In lieu of actual controversy after a weekend of slow news, the Hebrew tabloids are forced to dig deep in order to provide sufficient drama to lead the week’s first front pages, reviewing and reigniting last week’s debate over contentious comments by Israel’s army chief against the use of excessive firepower.

IDF Chief of Staff Gadi Eisenkot said on Wednesday that the army’s rules of engagement were sufficient to deal with terrorist threats and that he would not want to see a situation in which a soldier emptied a full magazine “at a girl holding scissors.” He was presumably referring to an incident in November where two Palestinian teenagers attacked an elderly man with scissors and were shot by an off-duty security guard.

Both Yedioth Ahronoth and Israel Hayom use quotes from Saturday speeches by public officials to form their front page headlines. The choice of quotes seem to signify each paper’s position on the issue, which, since the comments were made, has become politically charged with lawmakers and military officials coming out for and against Eisenkot’s sentiments.

“Netanyahu has abandoned the chief of staff,” reads Yedioth’s lead, quoting opposition leader Isaac Herzog calling out the prime minister for failing to defend Eisenkot from a storm of criticism from the right-wing MKs. Underneath the headline, the paper — often accused of being blatantly anti-Netanyahu — asserts that “the political establishment is attacking the prime minister for not standing up for the chief of staff.”

(After several days of silence on the matter, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu did respond on Sunday morning, criticizing those who attacked Eisenkot for his statements.)

Israel Hayom on the other hand — often accused of being blatantly pro-Netanyahu — uses a quote from Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan as its lead headline: “He didn’t empty his magazine.” Erdan was himself questioning Eisenkot’s comments, arguing that the security guard in the incident under discussion did not use the excessive force described.

The coverage on the topic summed up the various responses to the comments from across the political spectrum but failed to offer any analysis on the debate. The paper took a jab at foreign media coverage of the issue (and Eisenkot himself) by including a prominent photo from the UK newspaper The Independent with the headline, “Israel’s army chief admits that troops sometimes take unnecessary lethal action,” with the tongue-in-cheek caption, “Fascinating analysis on the comments.”

Nahum Barnea, Yedioth Ahronoth’s chief correspondent and commentator writes that it is not the comments themselves that have triggered such extensive coverage, but the context in which they were made.

“In less contentious political times the words of the chief of staff would not have stirred up such a storm. They would not have even justified one headline in the paper. Eisenkot was speaking to high school students that about to be conscripted to the IDF… the things he said perfectly express the army’s own rules of engagement,” Barnea writes.

Barnea argues that given the response of some senior politicians, the prime minister must make clear that the chief of staff is the top of the chain of command.

“Eisenkot doesn’t need political patrons. His position is strong. Those who need clear statements are the senior soldiers and policeman. They are the ones who could get confused. Netanyahu should turn to them and say: Don’t listen to the words of the politicians; listen to the chief of staff.”

The broadsheet Haaretz gives significantly less prominence to the story, dealing with the dearth of Israeli news by featuring on its front page three prominent international headlines — “Israel to the West: We need your intervention to stop Assad”; “British citizens will decide in a referendum whether to leave the European Union”; and “A decisive night for both parties in Nevada and South Carolina.”

It does however dedicate its lead editorial to the Eisenkot comments, echoing Nahum Barnaa in Yedioth by distinguishing between Israel’s military and political leadership.

“Eisenkot’s words are no different from what every squad commander in basic training drills into his or her soldiers. The IDF wants, very rightly, to maintain discipline when it comes to opening fire. Moreover, there is no comparison between self-defense against knife-wielding attackers and a battle for a military objective. The army’s goal is to remove the threat without causing greater damage in doing so. Indiscriminate firing could lead to injury to bystanders; death from a stray bullet, not from an intentional stabbing, is no less tragic. Security guards and units that specialize in hostage liberation are carefully trained not the hurt the innocent. Such care also obliges ordinary soldiers to restrain themselves; it is good that they hear this from their supreme commander as well as from their direct superiors,” reads the op-ed.

After quoting some of the most severe responses by Israeli politicians — Transportation Minister Yisrael Katz posted on Facebook after a Thursday’s stabbing: “I hope the words of the chief of staff, whom I respect and admire, against opening automatic fire on minors were not mistakenly interpreted, causing hesitation and risking lives,” and Deputy Foreign Minister Tzipi Hotovely said: “The chief of staff’s comments do not serve the depiction of reality on the ground,” and “‘If someone comes to kill you, kill him first’ is an important Jewish principle” — the piece concludes, “Woe to the State of Israel led by such as these. It is good that the IDF has different leadership.”

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