Lapid warns military may face pressure to employ unlawful use of force

Outgoing PM tells graduating cadets Israel’s laws are crucial to separating it from its enemies, in apparent response to far-right MK Itamar Ben Gvir’s call to ease open-fire rules

Michael Horovitz is a breaking news editor at The Times of Israel

Outgoing Prime Minister Yair Lapid addresses IDF cadets graduating from the military's officer's course at Bahad 1 in southern Israel, November 10, 2022. (Amos Ben Gershom/GPO)
Outgoing Prime Minister Yair Lapid addresses IDF cadets graduating from the military's officer's course at Bahad 1 in southern Israel, November 10, 2022. (Amos Ben Gershom/GPO)

Prime Minister Yair Lapid on Thursday warned the military that it may face pressure to employ unlawful force toward Palestinians, saying that maintaining the IDF’s law-abiding framework for the use of force could prove to be one of the army’s biggest homegrown challenges.

Lapid’s words come against the backdrop of an emerging hard-right coalition government led by Benjamin Netanyahu that will include members of the far right, where there have been calls to loosen the army’s rules of engagement.

Addressing cadets who completed the officers’ course at Bahad 1, the Israel Defence Forces officers’ school in southern Israel, Lapid said that the IDF will be confronted with “calls to use force without laws, without rules, without adherence to the model of a law-abiding army.”

“These calls weaken Israeli society and the IDF,” Lapid said. “The fact that we are a proper democracy with rules and laws is not a limit on our power, it is the source of our power. It is something that differentiates us from our enemies. If we aren’t different from them, we won’t beat them,” he added.

“If the IDF is not an army of morals that protects the law, it won’t draft the best soldiers and commanders to its service.”

The remarks were likely in reference to views expressed by the heads of the allied Religious Zionism and Otzma Yehudit parties, Bezalel Smotrich and Itamar Ben Gvir.

Smotrich is said to be gunning for the role of defense minister while Ben Gvir desires the role of public security minister, who is in charge of police.

Ben Gvir heavily campaigned in the lead-up to last week’s election for the easing of the IDF’s rules of engagement, to allow security forces to more easily shoot-to-kill Palestinian suspects. Smotrich has also made similar comments.

The pair’s alliance won 14 seats in last week’s elections for the Knesset and is set to be the second-largest party in the coalition that Netanyahu hopes to form, ousting Lapid.

Head of the Otzma Yehudit party MK Itamar Ben Gvir seen after coalition talks at the Likud headquarters in Tel Aviv on November 7, 2022. (Gideon Markowicz/Flash90)

Lapid also told the graduating soldiers that the IDF’s model as a national army is “challenged by the dangerous phenomenon of draft evasion and refusal, in the face of a growing public that is not enlisting.”

While military service is mandatory for most Jewish Israelis, ultra-Orthodox men, which represent a growing portion of the population, often receive exemptions in order to continue their religious studies. Some of the more extreme among them refuse to even apply for such an exemption, often leading to arrests.

The exemptions have long infuriated secular Israelis, but ultra-Orthodox communities have resisted repeated attempts to force them to register for the draft. In his time in the Knesset, Lapid has headed efforts to pass legislation aimed at forcing members of the ultra-Orthodox community to draft for some form of national service.

Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.

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