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Gantz rejects Ben Gvir request to visit jailed soldier

IDF chief: Only commanders will decide how to handle wayward soldiers

Reacting to right-wing criticism of jailing of serviceman who taunted activists, Kohavi says code of conduct ‘doesn’t change with the weather’; Netanyahu: Keep IDF out of politics

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

IDF Chief of Staff Aviv Kohavi speaks at Ben Gurion University, November 30, 2022. (Dani Machlis/BGU)
IDF Chief of Staff Aviv Kohavi speaks at Ben Gurion University, November 30, 2022. (Dani Machlis/BGU)

Military chief Aviv Kohavi on Wednesday evening said the Israel Defense Forces’ code of conduct would not change “based on the weather,” referring to pressure from right-wing lawmakers after a soldier was jailed for taunting an activist in the West Bank city of Hebron.

“The IDF is a highly moral army,” Kohavi said, “but there are irregular incidents.”

“I’m proud that we deal with these incidents harshly,” he said, speaking at Ben Gurion University in Beersheba after receiving an award from the institution.

“The IDF has a moral code. It is called the spirit of the IDF and it does not change based on the weather. Only commanders in the IDF will dictate the rules, and only commanders in the IDF will decide how to handle [soldiers], and only commanders in the IDF will decide how to deal with irregular incidents,” he said, referring to far-right leader Itamar Ben Gvir’s calls to change the army’s rules and his criticism of the decision to jail the soldier.

“Our moral compass is stable, clear and precise,” he said.

Ben Gvir, chair of the Otzma Yehudit party, has slammed the IDF for punishing the soldier, who last week confronted an activist and boasted that there would be a new sheriff in town when Ben Gvir becomes national security minister.

Ben Gurion University President Prof. Daniel Chamovitz (right) awards IDF chief Aviv Kohavi (left) with an award, at Ben Gurion University in Beersheba. November 30, 2022 (Emanuel Fabian/Times of Israel)

There have also been attacks on  Lt. Col. Aviran Alfasi, the commander of the Givati infantry brigade’s Tzabar battalion, who sentenced the soldier to 10 days in prison. Alfasi has faced invective and threats, mostly on social media, but also coming directly to his cellphone, since meting out the punishment.

Prime Minister-designate Benjamin Netanyahu also weighed in on the argument, tweeting: “The IDF is the people’s army. I call on all of you, from right and left, to leave it out of any political argument.”

Outgoing Defense Minister Benny Gantz on Wednesday denied a request by Ben Gvir to visit the IDF soldier.

The refusal was first reported by Channel 12 news, which said that in his response, Gantz accused Ben Gvir of “cynically exploiting IDF soldiers in a disgusting manner” that harms the IDF, and that “any political involvement in [military disciplinary matters] is completely unacceptable.”

In response, Ben Gvir said Gantz was the one “cynically exploiting IDF soldiers” and that he “abandoned them and created a leadership vacuum.”

“When a defense minister defends anarchists instead of protecting and backing his soldiers — that is what harms the military,” he added.

The jailed soldier sent a letter to Maj. Gen. Yehuda Fuchs — who as Central Command chief is in charge of Israeli forces in the West Bank — and Givati commander Eliad Maor on Tuesday, apologizing and asking that his sentence be annulled or commuted.

In his letter, he said he had not been trained to deal with Israeli citizens. “In my training, I learned how to fight. There was no detailed discussion of how to confront anarchists,” he said.

The IDF said the request to commute the sentence would be evaluated.

A Givati soldier (left) is seen confronting an activist in the West Bank city of Hebron, November 25, 2022, and then-Maj. Aviran Alfasi (right), now the commander of the Tzabar battalion, in April 2019. (Screenshot: Breaking the Silence; Israel Defense Forces)

In a related incident last week, a fellow member of the soldier’s team was seen tackling an activist to the ground and punching him in the face. The second soldier was not immediately punished, aside from being immediately suspended following the assault.

An initial probe conducted by Fuchs and released Wednesday found “a number of errors” relating to the soldiers’ conduct in Hebron.

Givati troops have been embroiled in several other recent behavioral incidents in Hebron that have led to suspensions.

A senior military commander on Monday warned Israeli troops they would face repercussions for immoral actions.

An Israeli soldier is seen punching a left-wing activist in Hebron in the West Bank, November 25, 2022. (Breaking the Silence)

The West Bank has been on edge over the past year, with the IDF launching a major anti-terror offensive mostly focused on the northern West Bank to deal with a series of Palestinian attacks that have left 31 people in Israel and the West Bank dead since the start of the year. Hebron is in the southern part of the territory.

The operation has netted more than 2,500 arrests in near-nightly raids, but has also left around 150 Palestinians dead, many of them — but not all — while carrying out attacks or during clashes with security forces.

At the same time, there has been a steep rise in settler attacks against Palestinians and security forces.

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