IDF chief hits back at far-right minister who compared security heads to Wagner Group

At graduation ceremony, Herzi Halevi says Orit Strock’s apology doesn’t undo damage, warns that troops who don’t intervene in settler attacks on Palestinians can’t be officers

Emanuel (Mannie) Fabian is The Times of Israel's military correspondent

IDF chief Herzi Halevi speaks at an IDF cadets graduation ceremony at the Bahad 1 base in southern Israel, June 28, 2023. (Israel Defense Forces)
IDF chief Herzi Halevi speaks at an IDF cadets graduation ceremony at the Bahad 1 base in southern Israel, June 28, 2023. (Israel Defense Forces)

Military chief Lt. Gen. Herzi Halevi on Wednesday hit back at a far-right minister who had compared him and other defense leaders to Russia’s mutinous Wagner Group militia earlier this week, and said soldiers who turn a blind eye to settler violence should not be promoted as officers.

Halevi’s comments to an officer graduation ceremony in southern Israel were sparked by a string of settler attacks on Palestinian towns in the West Bank over the last week, in revenge for a terror attack that left four Israelis dead.

Security forces’ attempts to crack down on extremist violence have been met with denunciations from far-right politicians in Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s cabinet, including Settlements Minister Orit Strock. On Monday, she compared Halevi, Shin Bet head Ronen Bar and Police Commissioner Yaakov Shabtai to the Wagner group, which had threatened to march on Moscow after turning against Russia days earlier. The three had issued a joint statement condemning settler rampages as “terrorism.”

She later apologized.

“Whoever berates the IDF should remember that even an apology after the fact does not cancel the great damage caused,” he said.

MK Orit Strock takes part in a march to the illegal Evyatar outpost, near the West Bank city of Nablus, on April 10, 2023 (Sraya Diamant/Flash90)

“The IDF acts solely for the security of the citizens. The tongue-lashing of those who dedicate their lives to defend harms the security of the citizens,” he added.

The comment was likely a reference to intense verbal abuse aimed at Col. Eliav Elbaz, the commander of the Binyamin Regional Brigade in the IDF’s West Bank division, who has been targeted by settlers since the deadly terror attack near Eli.

Halevi told the new officers that alongside protecting Israel’s borders, foiling Palestinian terror, and fighting in wars, they will “also encounter complex challenges” of settler violence.

“Terrorism and its severe consequences lead some people to commit morally and legally prohibited acts,” Halevi said.

In five days of rioting last week and early this week, hundreds of settlers rampaged in Palestinian towns and villages for five days, setting fire to homes, cars, and even opening fire in some cases. One Palestinian was killed Wednesday in unclear circumstances.

In some instances, soldiers were accused of standing by and letting settlers run amok before stepping in. Halevy decried the phenomenon, saying soldiers who allow attacks cannot command other troops.

“An officer who sees an Israeli citizen intending to throw a Molotov cocktail into a Palestinian house and stands by cannot be an officer,” Halevi said to the graduating cadets.

“This [ethical obligation] is our strength here compared to the complex region in which we live, and we must not erode it,” he said.

In recent years, there have been numerous documented cases of IDF soldiers standing by as settlers attacked Palestinians. In other cases, such as in recent days, IDF soldiers were not present at all, only arriving after the fact and then clashing with the local Palestinian population.

Israeli soldiers stop Israeli settlers from entering the Palestinian West Bank town of Turmus Ayya, June 21, 2023. (AP Photo/Ohad Zwigenberg)

Soldiers are legally permitted — even required in some cases — to intervene to prevent violent attacks, regardless of nationality. The military generally prefers for police to deal with Israeli civilians, as most settlers are, but police forces are stretched thin in the West Bank.

The IDF has deployed additional troops to the West Bank following the attack in Eli last week and the subsequent settler rampages.

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