Israel Defense Forces Chief of Staff Aviv Kohavi on Sunday morning visited the home of a Border Police sniper fatally wounded during a riot along the Gaza border last month to express his condolences to the fuming family.
Barel Hadaria Shmueli was shot in the head at point-blank range by a Palestinian gunman on August 21 and succumbed to his wounds just over a week later.
His family, along with right-wing activists and opposition lawmakers, accused the military of issuing overly restrictive rules of engagement that they claim prevented troops from keeping the rioters away from the border fence. Shmueli’s father has suggested Prime Minister Naftali Bennett should resign over the incident, his mother has said she does not trust the government or the army, and the family has rejected the IDF’s investigation, demanding an independent inquiry.
The IDF has denied that the open-fire regulations were to blame — noting that Shmueli himself fired at the rioters when they rushed the border — and said that at issue was the way in which troops were deployed.
Responding to the criticism, Kohavi on Saturday issued a highly unusual letter calling on the public to back the army.
“A society that does not back its soldiers and commanders, including when they make mistakes, will discover that it has nobody to fight for it,” Kohavi wrote in his missive, which was addressed to military commanders.
Alluding to the IDF investigation of Shmueli’s death, Kohavi noted that during combat, “decisions are usually made in situations of uncertainty, and quickly; therefore there is always the possibility of mistakes being made.” It was the IDF’s obligation to thoroughly investigate, “to get to the truth and learn the lessons, but mistakes of judgment on the battlefield are not matters for blame and punishment,” declared Kohavi.
“Commanders and soldiers, you have my fullest backing. Continue to initiate and to take responsibility, to dare, and to bear the consequences,” he wrote.
In response to Kohavi’s letter Bennett called the army and top officers in the IDF Southern Command and assured them that they had his support.
“I want you to know and that everyone in uniform will know: My support for IDF commanders is total and complete. Whenever there’s a battle, there are mistakes. Sometimes they are tragic,” Bennett said.
In a statement, the prime minister said that the “heartbreak for the entire country” over Shmueli’s death was “enormous,” and added that his family was entitled to say whatever they wanted.
“The family can do anything. It is our job to give answers, to listen and to embrace,” he said. Still he condemned the opposition lawmakers and activists who joined the family’s criticism.
On Friday, the IDF released the initial findings of its investigation into Shmueli’s death, blaming it principally on the way in which troops were deployed along the Gaza border barrier during the riot.
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 stationed farther back to take positions closer to the border, where they could more effectively repel the rioters, according to the probe.
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.
The findings of the IDF probe were presented to Shmueli’s family on Friday morning by the head of the IDF Southern Command, Maj. Gen. Eliezer Toledano. His family rejected the military’s investigation and called for an independent one, blaming his death on the government.