General said snubbed by IDF chief appointed as top Liberman aide

Ofer Winter, who was accused of subjecting his soldiers to religious coercion during 2014 Gaza War, named as defense minister’s military secretary

Former Givati Brigade commander and Bnei David pre-military academy alum Ofer Winter. (Alon Besen/Defense Ministry)
Former Givati Brigade commander and Bnei David pre-military academy alum Ofer Winter. (Alon Besen/Defense Ministry)

Brig. Gen. Ofer Winter was appointed to be the next military secretary to Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman, the IDF Spokesperson’s Unit announced Wednesday.

The appointment came after Winter was said to have been passed over for promotion by IDF Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Gadi Eisenkot last month.

Winter came under criticism in the 2014 Gaza war for comments he made at the time that framed the operation as a religious fight, for allegedly passing information to politicians without proper approval, and for his actions during that conflict’s controversial “Black Friday” battle in Rafah.

Since the war, known in Israel as Operation Protective Edge, Winter’s career had stagnated, despite him having shown what was said to be significant promise for advancement to the upper echelons of the Israel Defense Forces.

Then-Givati Brigade commander Col. Ofer Winter, center, speaks to then-IDF chief of staff Benny Gantz, right, and then-head of the IDF Southern Command Maj. Gen. Sami Turjeman during the 2014 Gaza war on August 2, 2014. (Israel Defense Forces)

Winter was promoted from colonel to brigadier general in 2015 and made chief of staff for the Central Command, where he had remained ever since.

In the army’s normal trajectory for promotion, Winter would have been on track to take command of a division.

The brigadier general reportedly told confidants ahead of last month’s announcement that he would consider leaving the military if he did not get such a promotion.

Winter was also interviewed to replace Brig. Gen. Eliezer Toledano as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s military secretary, but was passed by Col. Avi Blot in an announcement made earlier this month.

According to the IDF Wednesday, Liberman consulted with Eisenkot before making the decision.

Winter will succeed Brig. Gen. Yair Coles as the defense minister’s military secretary.

Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman, center-right, meets with senior officers in the IDF Southern Command, including IDF chief Gadi Eisenkot, center, and Maj. Gen. Herzl Halevi, right, on June 12, 2018. (Ariel Hermoni/Defense Ministry)

“I am sure that a high-quality and experienced officer like him will be of great assistance to me,” Liberman tweeted following the announcement.

Winter is often held up as a shining example of the national-religious community. The brigadier general studied in the military boarding school Or Etzion and then in the pre-army Eli academy.

However, he came under criticism during Protective Edge, when he served as commander of the Givati Brigade, 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.

The former Givati Brigade commander 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 commanded the forces in the bloody “Black Friday” battle in the city of Rafah in southern Gaza on August 1, 2014. The fighting there 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.

A photo of Rafah in southern Gaza on August 2, 2014, one day after the abduction and killing of Lt. Hadar Goldin (Hatem Ali/ AP Photo)

The fighting began after Givati Lt. Hadar Goldin was believed to have been taken hostage and two other soldiers were killed. Forces on the ground activated the so-called “Hannibal Protocol,” a now-obsolete directive that gives the military near-unhindered ability to do whatever is necessary to prevent a kidnapping.

The IDF subsequently determined that Goldin was killed in action, and his remains are believed to still be held by Hamas in the Gaza Strip.

When the protocol was declared in Gaza, Winter reportedly sent a column of tanks into inhabited neighborhoods. Bulldozers tore down houses. Artillery batteries, tanks and aircraft opened fire, isolating the abduction zone and reportedly targeting all vehicles leaving the area.

In the army’s report on the battle, Winter acknowledged that the orders given that day had been “confusing” and said the military compromised the safety of the soldiers by putting them in an “unfortunate situation.”

According to Palestinian reports, the death toll reached approximately 120, though the IDF estimated the number to be closer to 40, 12 of whom were identified by the army as terrorists, 13 as civilians, and the rest as being undetermined but of “fighting age.”

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