The parents of a Border Police officer who was killed during a Gaza border riot last month aimed bitter rhetoric at the government and its head on Friday, while also rejecting the results of a military probe into the circumstances of his death.
Barel Hadaria Shmueli’s mother Nitza told Channel 12 her son’s death was “a scandal” which she tied to Prime Minister Naftali Bennett’s coalition with Arab party Ra’am. She said she’d torn up a letter of condolences sent to her by Bennett, would not want him to pay a condolence call, and that his coalition was engaged in the “assassination of Israel.”
The debate surrounding Shmueli’s death has become entangled in politics, as the family lashes out at the prime minister and his politics in a manner that few bereaved families have done in the past, while praising former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
Some of Shmueli’s family members as well as anti-government activists have claimed the Bennett government has tied the military’s hands along the Gaza border, restricting its use of firepower and thus endangering soldiers in order to maintain the coalition with Ra’am. There is no evidence to support this claim, and the military has denied its rules of engagement have changed under the current government.
On August 21, Palestinians in the Gaza Strip held a large demonstration along the Gaza border, near the defunct Karni Crossing. At one point during the demonstration, dozens of rioters rushed the border barrier, up to a hole in the concrete wall that was being used by Israeli snipers as a firing position. One man, armed with a gun, approached this hole in the wall, stuck his pistol through it and fired three times. One of these shots struck border guard Barel Hadaria Shmueli in the head, critically wounding him. He died of his injury on August 30.
An IDF probe blamed the killing of Shmueli on poor deployment of troops, not overly restrictive open-fire regulations. The findings of the probe were presented to Shmueli’s family on Friday morning by the head of the IDF Southern Command, Maj. Gen. Eliezer Toledano.
“I don’t believe in the army, I don’t believe in the government, I don’t believe in anyone,” Nitza Shmueli told Channel 12 on Friday.
“I handed him over to the country, and there was no one to protect him… All the training and all the target practice and all the studies and preparations, it was for nothing.”
Nitza said a messenger had come the day before to deliver a letter of condolence from the prime minister. “It angered me very much. I tore the two envelopes.”
She added: “The prime minister is a disgrace as far as I’m concerned… Our case connects to the politics. If the prime minister sits with [Ra’am party leader Mansour] Abbas, it’s an assassination of Israel. While I bury my son, the hero, Hamas are getting a loan with comfortable terms. A shame for the country.”
She was referring to Israel allowing Qatari cash to enter the Strip under restrictive terms, a practice that began under the previous government.
Nitza Shmueli said she wanted an outside investigation and was not content with an army probe. The military does not, as a rule, outsource investigations into single fatalities in combat.
Shmueli’s father Yossi Hadaria indicated he wanted Bennett to resign in a separate interview, telling Kan news that the premier and top army officials should bear responsibility for his son’s death and take the appropriate action.
Of visits to the bereaved family by top army commanders, Hadaria said: “All those who sat here playing their wordgames of ‘we couldn’t fire, we could fire… there are children, there is this or that.’ What is this? Who pays the price?”
Channel 12 reported, without citing sources, that it appears that political forces are at play in the conversation over Shmueli’s death, and that some in the opposition Likud are hoping to harm Bennett through the issue.
Meanwhile, Channel 12 reported that Bennett, during a meeting with top army brass, said in regard to the public criticism that “the family are allowed anything.”
But, he said, “I have contempt for the politicians who are shoving the IDF into the political arena as a punching bag.”
In the aftermath of Shmueli’s death, his parents — as well as right-wing members of the opposition — have been highly critical of the military, accusing the IDF of putting in place unclear and dangerous rules of engagement that prevented troops from keeping back the rioters from the barrier. A small number of soldiers also joined this criticism, launching a campaign on social media saying that the IDF top brass had “tied its hands.”
The IDF immediately launched an internal investigation, the initial findings of which it said refuted these claims.
“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, 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.
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.
Earlier this week, Shmueli’s family called for a “rigorous, objective and independent investigation” into the circumstances of the shooting. This would be an uncommon and dramatic move, as such incidents are typically handled within the chain of command, not with an independent investigation.
On Thursday night, IDF chief Aviv Kohavi defended the military against the ongoing criticism against it in a speech marking the entrance of Maj. Gen. David Salame into the position of commander of the navy.
“The soldiers and commanders are equipped with all of the tools and with open-fire rules that are clear. Claims to the contrary are baseless and are nothing but a total lie,” Kohavi said.
“Any soldier that feels threatened and at risk, in war or peacetime, is allowed to, needs to, and is required to take action and remove the threat,” he added.