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Bennett backs army, condemns politicians who condemned IDF

Fighting criticism, IDF chief says Israel must support troops or won’t have any

Amid ongoing debate over death of border guard in Gaza border riot, Kohavi issues highly irregular public missive, saying society must be able to accept losses to have resilience

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

IDF Chief of Staff Aviv Kohavi speaks at a ceremony on the Israel Navy's Haifa Base, on September 2, 2021. (Israel Defense Forces)
IDF Chief of Staff Aviv Kohavi speaks at a ceremony on the Israel Navy's Haifa Base, on September 2, 2021. (Israel Defense Forces)

Israel Defense Forces Chief of Staff Aviv Kohavi issued a highly irregular public letter on Saturday, addressing ongoing criticism of the military and its top brass over the death of a Border Police sniper during a riot along the Gaza border last month.

“A society that does not back its soldiers and commanders, including when they make mistakes, will discover that it has nobody to fight for it,” Kohavi wrote in his missive, which was addressed to military commanders.

The army chief released the letter in response to mounting criticism against IDF commanders over the death of border guard Barel Hadaria Shmueli, who was shot in the head at point-blank range by a Palestinian gunman on August 21 and succumbed to his wounds just over a week later.

Shmueli’s family — along with right-wing activists and opposition lawmakers — have accused the military of issuing overly restrictive rules of engagement that they claim prevented troops from keeping the rioters from the border fence. Shmueli’s father has suggested Prime Minister Naftali Bennett should resign over the incident, his mother has said she does not trust the government or the army, and the family has rejected the IDF’s investigation, demanding an independent inquiry.

The IDF has denied that the open-fire regulations were to blame — noting that Shmueli himself fired at the rioters when they rushed the border — and said that the issue was the way in which troops were deployed.

In his letter, Kohavi warned that the country must be prepared to lose soldiers in order to have “resilience” and told commanders to be willing to take chances.

“The readiness to sustain loss of life [in the defense of Israel] is crucial to national resilience, and that resilience is vital to the continuation of our very existence.

Alluding to the IDF investigation of Shmueli’s death, Kohavi noted that in times of combat, “decisions are usually taken in situations of uncertainty, and quickly, therefore there is always the possibility of mistakes being made.” It was the IDF’s obligation to thoroughly investigate, “to get to the truth and learn the lessons, but mistakes of judgment on the battlefield are not matters for blame and punishment,” stated Kohavi.

“Commanders and soldiers, you have my fullest backing. Continue to initiate and to take responsibility, to dare, and to bear the consequences,” he wrote.

“The backing we give you relates first and foremost to the system of command and leadership in the IDF. We will not change it; we will bolster it. This is not only an issue for the IDF, it is an issue for the State of Israel, and at its heart is the question of what kind of military commanders it wants — bold and full of initiative or defensive and hesitant. Be bold,” Kohavi said.

Bennett responded to Kohavi’s letter, calling the army and top officers in the IDF Southern Command and assuring them that they had his support.

“I want you to know and that everyone in uniform will know: My support for IDF commanders is total and complete. Whenever there’s a battle, there are mistakes, sometimes they are tragic,” Bennett said.

In a statement, the prime minister said that the “heartbreak for the entire country” over Shmueli’s death was “enormous,” and added that his family was entitled to say whatever they wanted.

“The family can do anything. It is our job to give answers, to listen and to embrace,” he said.

However, Bennett condemned the opposition lawmakers and activists who joined the family’s criticism. “I expect that politicians and public figures will not touch the IDF and its commanders. We have no other IDF,” he said.

Also on Saturday, President Isaac Herzog visited Shmueli’s family at home to express his condolences.

“Barel, who paid with his life to serve the homeland, was a hero. He was a daring soldier, an exemplar of the fighting spirit and sacrifice,” he was quoted saying in a statement from his office.

“We are all attentive to criticism, certainly to the criticism of parents and families, and it is important to investigate every incident, but it is also important to understand that the battlefield will never be a sterile zone,” he added.

Herzog said that he believed the military will thoroughly investigate the circumstances of the shooting and apply the lessons, while voicing support for IDF commanders.

“Without them, there would be nothing to defend our children, us, and our beloved and embattled land. Barel fell as a hero, and arguments like the one that has evolved over the past week around his death must not be allowed to give succor to our enemies,” he said.

On Friday, the IDF released the initial findings of its investigation into Shmueli’s death, blaming it principally on the way in which troops were deployed along the Gaza border barrier during the riot.

A coffin carrying the body of Border Police officer Barel Hadaria Shmueli at a 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)

“It would have been correct to deploy the troops and use them differently once the violent masses reached the defensive wall. At the same time, no issue was found in terms of the rules of engagement, which were not changed at any point before these events or during them,” the military said.

The military’s investigation found that the Northern Gaza Brigade commander may have been slow to respond when the rioters rushed the fence. Only after the masses reached the barrier did he order the soldiers that had been stationed farther back to take positions closer to the border, where they could more effectively repel the rioters, according to the probe.

“The chief of staff determined that the rules allowed for completion of the operational mission and the removal of any threat to life. It was also found that during this event significant gunfire was conducted in response to the riots,” the IDF said.

Border Police officer Barel Shmueli who was critically wounded in a shooting on the Gaza border, on August 21, 2021. He died of his injuries on August 30. (Border Police)

The IDF’s probe found that Shmueli himself fired a number of shots during the riot along the barrier, which strengthened the belief that the open-fire regulations were not an issue.

The findings of the IDF probe were presented to Shmueli’s family on Friday morning by the head of the IDF Southern Command, Maj. Gen. Eliezer Toledano. His family rejected the military’s investigation and called for an independent one, blaming his death on the government.

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