IDF rebukes senior officer for meeting Ben Gvir without permission

Col. Avinoam Emunah has been mentioned as a favorite to command the new national guard being set up at the insistence of the far-right national security minister

File: Col. Avinoam Emunah during a military ceremony in 2020. (Israel Defense Forces)
File: Col. Avinoam Emunah during a military ceremony in 2020. (Israel Defense Forces)

The Israel Defense Forces has reprimanded a senior officer for meeting with National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir without obtaining prior permission, the army said Thursday.

Col. Avinoam Emunah, commander of the IDF’s tactical command college and 810th Hermon Regional Brigade, was rebuked by his commander after the officer acknowledged that he had met recently with the far-right minister “without coordination or prior permission as is needed, violating the ban on direct contact between IDF officers and senior politicians,” the statement said, confirming a report by Army Radio.

The statement said Emunah, who is set to retire from the IDF in six months, took responsibility for his actions in meeting with Ben Gvir. According to a military source, Emunah met only once with Ben Gvir.

Emunah has been repeatedly mentioned as a leading candidate to head Ben Gvir’s controversial new National Guard, which critics have slammed as a private militia for the extremist politician.

Emunah previously sparked controversy after he was filmed in 2014 telling soldiers ahead of an operation near the Gaza Strip: “Most of the time you’ll see them fleeing, kill them while they’re fleeing. It is much more unpleasant tonight to be an Arab.”

In 2021, Emunah was censured by then-IDF chief Aviv Kohavi, and his planned promotion was delayed by two years, over an incident a year earlier when a soldier from the Maglan unit was seriously injured while jumping from a moving vehicle into a thorn bush. Emunah was head of Maglan in 2016, when a similar incident occurred, and did not prevent the dangerous custom from continuing.

In 2018, as head of the 474th Golan Regional Brigade, Emunah sparked controversy after he requested a male spokesperson for the unit, not a female soldier, apparently for religious reasons. The majority of soldiers in the IDF Spokesperson Unit are women, but his request was approved.

National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir arrives for a cabinet meeting at the Prime Minister’s Office in Jerusalem on April 2, 2023. (Olivier Fitoussi/Pool)

The cabinet last week voted to establish a national guard, which Ben Gvir has demanded will report directly to him.

The controversial force is expected to comprise 2,000 servicemembers who will be tasked with tackling “nationalist crime” and terrorism, and “restoring governance where needed.” A timeline for the creation of such a force is unclear, though it is likely to take months. The specific powers granted to the national guard, and whom it will answer to, will be discussed by a committee of security officials who will deliver their conclusions within 90 days, according to a cabinet statement last Sunday.

The move has drawn widespread criticism, including from Israel Police Commissioner Kobi Shabtai, who warned that if the body was not subordinate to the police it would lead to a breakdown of the police force along with damage to citizens’ security.

Attorney General Gali Baharav-Miara has also sounded the alarm, telling the government that there is a “legal impediment” to the current version of the proposal and that the police can deal with the challenges it faces without a competing body.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu promised Ben Gvir that he would bring the issue to a cabinet vote in exchange for the far-right minister remaining in the government despite his strong opposition to Netanyahu’s pause of judicial overhaul legislation to allow for dialogue with the opposition.

A chorus of former senior police commanders have also warned against the plan, including former police chief Moshe Karadi, who said Ben Gvir could use the force to launch a “coup.” Civil rights groups as well as opposition politicians have similarly expressed extreme concern over the proposal to bring such a force under the direct control of a cabinet minister, arguing that it could politicize policing and undermine the principle of equality in law enforcement.

The far-right Ben Gvir, as national security minister, has repeatedly involved himself directly in the policing of the massive demonstrations against the government’s judicial overhaul program, including telling the police which highways to make sure are left open during the protests, discussing the methods of crowd dispersal, and visiting police command centers while demonstrations were underway. He has reportedly had a frosty relationship with Commissioner Shabtai since being appointed minister.

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