IDF chief under fire for saying soldiers should try not to kill young attackers

Right-wing rabbis and lawmakers accuse Eisenkot of making light of Jewish aphorism; deputy FM says he invited international criticism of army

Rabbi Shmuel Eliyahu in 2013. (Flash90/Yonatan Sindel)
Rabbi Shmuel Eliyahu in 2013. (Flash90/Yonatan Sindel)

Rabbis and right-wing lawmakers on Thursday took IDF Chief of Staff Lt. Gen Gadi Eisenkot to task for stating that the IDF’s rules of engagement do not include soldiers “emptying a full magazine at a girl holding scissors.”

Deputy Foreign Minister Tzipi Hotovely said Eisenkot’s words were damaging to Israel’s image.

“The international community very much loves to accuse Israel of using disproportionate force. At the end of the day the conduct of security forces has been exemplary,” she told Channel 2.

“When there’s a 13-year-old girl holding scissors or a knife and there is some distance between her and the soldiers, I don’t want to see a soldier open fire and empty his magazine at a girl like that, even if she is committing a very serious act,” Eisenkot had said Wednesday at a high school in the coastal city of Bat Yam. “Rather he should use the force necessary to fulfill the objective.”

“The army cannot speak in slogans such as ‘If a person rises to kill you, kill him first,’” he said in response to a student’s question on the IDF’s “lenient” rules of engagement, quoting a traditional Jewish phrase.

Eisenkot appeared to be alluding to a stabbing attack carried out by scissors-wielding teen Palestinian cousins in Jerusalem in November.

Safed Chief Rabbi Shmuel Eliyahu mocked the chief of staff’s comments, saying: “His statement could have sounded very touching, enlightened even, if he were successful at stopping this ongoing wave of terror attacks. To the regret of us all, Gadi Eisenkot failed in his foremost duty.”

IDF Chief of Staff Gadi Eisenkot (Miriam Alster/Flash90, File)
IDF Chief of Staff Gadi Eisenkot (Miriam Alster/Flash90, File)

Speaking to the Hebrew-language news site NRG, Eliyahu added: “The chief of staff thinks he’s more moral than the sages, that IDF soldiers have superior values and regulations. He thinks soldiers should not kill everyone who tries to run them over, that they should not kill everyone who approaches citizens or IDF soldiers with scissors or a knife. Apparently [Eisenkot] thinks it’s enough to disarm them and then set them free in the next wave of prisoner releases.”

Since October 1, some 30 Israelis have been killed by Palestinians in knife, gun and car-ramming attacks. At the same time, more than 160 Palestinians have been killed, some 115 of them while carrying out attacks, and others during clashes and demonstrations.

The outburst of Palestinian violence, which began in September over tensions at Jerusalem’s Temple Mount, sacred to both Jews and Muslims, shows no signs of abating. Israel says the violence is fueled by a Palestinian campaign of lies and incitement, compounded on social media sites that glorify and encourage attacks. Palestinians say it stems from frustration at nearly five decades of Israeli rule and dwindling hopes for gaining independence.

“According to [Jewish law], ‘If a person rises to kill you, kill him first’ is the most moral norm of behavior and is not a slogan,” said Rabbi Ratzon Arusi, a prominent member of the Chief Rabbinate Council.

“If I see a 13-year-old girl coming to stab MK Zehava Galon with scissors, with all due respect to the chief of staff talking about whether it’s scissors or not, there is a clear will here to kill Galon,” he added, invoking the leader of the left-wing Meretz party as an example of an unarmed Israeli civilian who could come under attack.

In such a case, Arusi continued, “it’s my duty to save Galon’s life and disarm the terrorist. It is better to disarm without killing, but if the danger is immediate, it is better to kill the shahid,” or martyr.

Jewish Home party MK Moti Yogev, a former IDF colonel, said Thursday that he knew the chief of staff personally and appreciated “his work,” but objected to his reference to the Jewish aphorism “‘If a person rises to kill you, kill him first” as a slogan.

The saying, “a moral rule of Judaism mentioned in the sages’ interpretation of a passage in Deuteronomy,” means that a person is allowed to defend and save their life “even at the cost of the life of the one who risks it,” he said. “The chief of staff should retract his comments, so that they’re not construed as dismissive of the scripture on which we rely.”

MK Bezalel Smotrich, a colleague of Yogev’s in the right-wing Jewish Home, on Wednesday sent a letter to Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon demanding that he discipline Eisenkot for his comments.

Jewish Home MK Bezalel Smotrich in the Knesset on June 08, 2015. (Miriam Alster/FLASH90 )
Jewish Home MK Bezalel Smotrich in the Knesset on June 08, 2015. (Miriam Alster/FLASH90 )

The chief of staff’s statement constituted “improper behavior,” Smotrich said, arguing that “Jewish values and principles are the infrastructure on which the State of Israel and the IDF are founded. Disdain for what Israel holds sacred and for the values that guided us for thousands of years is inappropriate and not in keeping with the military’s values or the conduct one might expect of a senior officer.”

But Ya’alon made clear he firmly supported Eisenkot on Thursday. He told students at the Tel Hai College in the north that Israel could not compromise on its core values, even in the face of persistent Palestinian unrest.

“We must act calmly, judiciously and with discretion in order to keep from harming innocents and to avoid creating a situation in which our outrage causes us to lose our humanity, and ultimately, lose sight of justice,” Ya’alon said.

“We must not allow our senses to be dulled and must not become trigger-happy simply because our blood is boiling,” the defense minister added. “We need to know how to win and still remain human.”

Agencies contributed to this report.

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