Netanyahu defends army chief for advocating restraint

Prime minister says criticism of Eisenkot’s comments on rules of engagement could stem from narrow political interests

Adiv Sterman is a breaking news editor at The Times of Israel.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu leads the weekly cabinet meeting in Jerusalem, February 21, 2016. (Emil Salman/Pool)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu leads the weekly cabinet meeting in Jerusalem, February 21, 2016. (Emil Salman/Pool)

After several days of silence on the matter, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu lashed out Sunday at right-wing politicians who criticized IDF Chief of Staff Gadi Eisenkot for saying that the army’s rules of engagement do not include soldiers “emptying a full magazine into a girl holding scissors.”

Eisenkot “stated the obvious and it is apparent that security forces do act” as the chief of staff prescribed, Netanyahu said at the opening of the weekly cabinet meeting. “All statements made [against Eisenkot] afterward were inappropriate and were due to either a lack of understanding or political assaults.”

Opposition leader Isaac Herzog slammed Netanyahu on Saturday for failing to speak out in support of Eisenkot, saying that the prime minister “let ministers and MKs in his coalition besmirch the man in charge of our security, and that is unacceptable.”

Jewish Home leader Naftali Bennett, whose fellow party members were among those who condemned Eisenkot, also defended the chief of staff on Sunday, saying that the army head had merely restated the IDF’s rules of engagement.

“The chief of staff repeated the rules of engagement and I back him,” Bennett said ahead of the cabinet meeting. “Any terrorist, no matter their age, who endangers Israeli lives, should be shot at, [but] if there is no danger to life, you do not open fire.”

Addressing high school students in Bat Yam on Wednesday, Eisenkot appeared to allude to a stabbing attack carried out by scissors-wielding teen Palestinian cousins in Jerusalem in November.

“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 said. “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.

Right-wing lawmakers took Eisenkot to task for his comments, with Deputy Foreign Minister Tzipi Hotovely accusing Eisenkot of damaging 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.

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 referring to the Jewish directive “If a person rises to kill you, kill him first” as a slogan.

The saying is “a moral rule of Judaism mentioned in the sages’ interpretation of a passage in Deuteronomy” and means that a person is allowed to defend himself “even at the cost of the life of the one who threatens 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.

Defense Minister Moshe Ya'alon at the Munich Security Conference on February 14, 2016 (Ariel Harmoni/Defense Ministry)
Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon at the Munich Security Conference on February 14, 2016 (Ariel Harmoni/Defense Ministry)

But Ya’alon made clear Thursday that he firmly supports Eisenkot, telling students in the north that Israel could not compromise on its core values, even in the face of persistent Palestinian unrest.

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

The outburst of Palestinian violence that 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.

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.

Police said they would close a probe into the policeman who shot and killed a Palestinian teenager last November when she carried out a stabbing attack in Jerusalem with a pair of scissors, Channel 2 reported Saturday. Officials said they had decided to close the case as there was no evidence that the officer had criminal intent in his actions.

The officer had been questioned by the Police Investigations Unit over his shooting of 16-year-old Hadil Wajia Awad, a schoolgirl who carried out a stabbing attack in Jerusalem, along with her 16-year-old cousin. The two stabbed and wounded a 70-year-old Palestinian man whom they had mistaken for a Jew.

The two were shot by the off-duty police sapper and a citizen armed with a gun. Awad was killed, while the cousin survived and has been charged with attempted murder.

Marissa Newman, Tamar Pileggi and agencies contributed to this report.

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