General snubbed by previous IDF chief gets long-sought promotion

Ofer Winter, who was accused of subjecting his soldiers to religious coercion during 2014 Gaza War, named next head of Central Command’s 98th Division

Judah Ari Gross is The Times of Israel's religions and Diaspora affairs correspondent.

Then-Givati Brigade commander Col. Ofer Winter, left, speaks to then-IDF chief of staff Benny Gantz, right, during the 2014 Gaza war on August 2, 2014. (Israel Defense Forces)
Then-Givati Brigade commander Col. Ofer Winter, left, speaks to then-IDF chief of staff Benny Gantz, right, during the 2014 Gaza war on August 2, 2014. (Israel Defense Forces)

IDF chief Aviv Kohavi chose Brig. Gen. Ofer Winter to take over command of the Central Command’s 98th Division, after the controversial officer was passed over for a field position last year, the army said Monday.

The appointment of Winter, who currently serves as the military secretary to the defense minister, was one of 15 staff changes announced by the military on Monday.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who also serves as defense minister, hailed the decision.

“Ofer, lead [the 98th Division] to victory. Good luck!” Netanyahu wrote on Twitter. He did not refer to any of the other appointments announced Monday.

Brig. Gen. Yaron Finkleman was tapped to lead the Operations Division of the IDF Operations Directorate, a central role in the planning of military activities and often a stepping stone to a position on the IDF General Staff. Brig. Gen. Nimrod Aloni was named the next commander of the Gaza Division, a region that is expected to see ongoing tensions and bouts of violence in the coming months. Brig. Gen. Yaniv Alaluf was also picked to take command of the Judea and Samaria Division, which is responsible for the West Bank.

These appointments, including Winter’s, are expected to go into effect in the coming months.

The 98th Division, also known as the Fire Formation, is home to the Paratroopers Brigade and the Commando Brigade, as well as two reservist brigades.

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.

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

Winter was promoted from colonel to brigadier general in 2015 and was made chief of staff for the Central Command. Last July, he was appointed military secretary to then-defense minister Avigdor Liberman. He retained the position after Liberman stepped down and Netanyahu, who already had a military secretary as prime minister, took over the role.

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

But last year, he was passed over for promotion by then-IDF Chief of Staff Gadi Eisenkot.

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.

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.

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)

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.”

Jacob Magid contributed to this report.

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