IDF announces new promotions, with one officer notably left out: Ofer Winter
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IDF announces new promotions, with one officer notably left out: Ofer Winter

The controversial brigadier general made waves in the 2014 Gaza war with a letter framing it as a divine conflict

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

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)
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)

The contentious IDF brigadier general Ofer Winter was passed over for promotion yet again on Monday, as the military announced a number of new nominations for high-ranking positions.

Winter came under considerable 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 the highly controversial “Black Friday” battle in Rafah.

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

He was promoted from colonel to brigadier general in 2015 and made chief of staff for the Central Command, where he has 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 Monday’s announcement that he would consider leaving the military if he did not get such a promotion.

IDF Chief of Staff Gadi Eisenkot, right, visits a surprise exercise led by Brig. Gen. Sa’ar Tzur, left, on March 21, 2017. (Israel Defense Forces)

Col. Shlomo Binder received such a promotion, being tapped to lead the Galilee Division and going up in rank to brigadier general, the army said.

Brig. Gen. Sa’ar Tzur will take over as head of the 162nd Armored Division for Brig. Gen. Oded Basyuk, who will move to the Planning Division of the Planning Directorate, a position usually seen as a steppingstone to the IDF General Staff.

Winter under fire

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.

He first served in the elite Sayeret Matkal unit and then moved to the elite Maglan unit, where he served first as a team leader, then a platoon commander and finally a company commander.

Winter then moved to the infantry, serving in a number of senior positions in the Givati Infantry Brigade throughout the second intifada, during which time his units earned a number of decorations, including the Medal of Distinguished Service.

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)

Winter 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.

“History has chosen us to spearhead the fighting (against) the terrorist ‘Gazan’ enemy which abuses, blasphemes and curses the God of Israel’s (defense) forces,” he wrote.

In media interviews, the officer also described his troops being protected in battle by “clouds of glory,” raising concerns among religious freedom activists that Winter was theocratizing the military.

“I would expect IDF commanders to remember that the IDF is the army of the people and not a religious militia,” said Mickey Gitzin, executive director of Israel Hofshit, a pro-religious freedom organization, at the time.

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.

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)

Winter also 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.

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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