Netanyahu: Army should be left out of political arguments

IDF chief backs officer who jailed soldier, slams ‘political meddling’

Lapid pans MKs for ‘wild incitement’ against commander who sentenced soldier for taunting left-wing activists; IDF weighs appeal by soldier who said Ben Gvir will ‘sort things out’

Emanuel (Mannie) Fabian is The Times of Israel's military correspondent

IDF Chief of Staff Aviv Kohavi speaks at a conference in Ganei Tikva, August 18, 2022. (Avshalom Sassoni/Flash90)
IDF Chief of Staff Aviv Kohavi speaks at a conference in Ganei Tikva, August 18, 2022. (Avshalom Sassoni/Flash90)

Israel Defense Forces Chief of Staff Aviv Kohavi on Wednesday said that political interference in military decisions was “unacceptable,” after an officer was targeted by right-wing politicians for sentencing a soldier to 10 days in military prison for taunting left-wing activists in the West Bank city of Hebron.

The IDF said Kohavi “made it clear that attacking [the officer] is unacceptable, and any political interference in commanders’ decisions is unacceptable.”

“Slandering commanders on political grounds is a slippery slope that we as a society must not slide down,” Kohavi said in remarks provided by the IDF.

“We will not allow any politician, neither from the right nor from the left, to interfere in command decisions and use the army to promote a political agenda,” Kohavi said.

“Political interference in the IDF directly harms the army’s ability to carry out its tasks, and its legitimacy,” he said.

Far-right Otzma Yehudit chief Itamar Ben Gvir has slammed the IDF for the punishment of the soldier, although he also pushed back against the attacks on Lt. Col. Aviran Alfasi, the commander of the Givati infantry brigade’s Tzabar battalion who sentenced the infantry soldier.

A Givati soldier (left) is seen confronting an activist in the West Bank city of Hebron, November 25, 2022, and then-Maj. Aviran Alfasi (right), now the commander of the Tzabar batallion, in April 2019. (Screenshot: Breaking the Silence; Israel Defense Forces)

Alfasi has faced invective and threats, mostly on social media, but also coming directly to his cellphone, since meting out the punishment.

Members of presumed incoming prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud party also criticized the jailing of the soldier, who last week confronted an activist and boasted that there would be a new sheriff in town when Ben Gvir becomes national security minister.

Ben Gvir responded to Kohavi, saying that he respected him, but “I would expect from the chief of staff that just as he demanded that a soldier not express himself politically, he himself would refrain from political statements.”

“No wonder that when the defense minister is not functioning and there is no one to set policy, a leadership vacuum is created. I have no intention of interfering with the punishment, but the policy must change,” Ben Gvir added in a barb against Defense Minister Benny Gantz.

Otzma Yehudit leader Itamar Ben Gvir speaks during a faction meeting at the Knesset on November 28, 2022. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

Prime Minister Yair Lapid earlier condemned the “wild incitement” against him from members of the presumed incoming coalition.

“The new government has not yet taken office and its ministers are already inciting the IDF soldiers against their commanders,” Lapid said on Twitter. “The wild incitement led by the [incoming] ministers and MKs against the chief of staff, the [Central] Command officer, and against the battalion commander, Lt. Col. Aviran Alfasi, is dangerous and destructive and is at the head of the new government.”

Lapid said IDF troops “cannot get approval from ministers and MKs to violate the orders of their commanders.”

“Their lives and ours depend on having a strong military with a clear chain of command and battle discipline. This incitement, disguised as ‘support,’ is dangerous, irresponsible, and erodes the strength of the IDF,” Lapid added.

Expected incoming prime minister Netanyahu, in his first remarks on the matter, called on Wednesday for the army to be left out of political arguments.

“The IDF is the people’s army. I call on everyone, right and left, to leave it out of any political argument,” he said on Twitter.

Alfasi sentenced the soldier to 10 days in military prison again on Tuesday, “following the detection of a flaw in the disciplinary proceedings,” the IDF said.

Meanwhile, the jailed soldier sent a letter to Maj. Gen. Yehuda Fuchs — who as Central Command chief is in charge of Israeli forces in the West Bank — and Givati commander Eliad Maor apologizing and asking that his sentence be dismissed or lessened.

“I said a few words without any intention of humiliating the IDF or committing an offense and I now find myself going to jail,” the soldier wrote. “I was under a lot of pressure during the incident and I only request consideration of everything going on there.”

“I ask for forgiveness. I understand my mistake,” he added.

The IDF said the request to lessen the sentence would be evaluated.

Maj. Gen. Yehuda Fuchs, commander of the army’s Central Command, in an undated photograph. (Israel Defense Forces)

Fuchs has expressed backing for Alfasi and said Wednesday that “tainting the name of [Alfasi], a moral officer and an excellent commander, is unacceptable.”

In a related incident last week, a fellow member of the soldier’s team was seen tackling an activist to the ground and punching him in the face. The second soldier was not immediately punished, aside from being immediately suspended following the assault.

An initial probe conducted by Fuchs and released Wednesday found “a number of errors” relating to the soldiers’ conduct in Hebron.

“The first of which is that the soldiers acted out of poor judgment and against what is expected of them, using unnecessary physical and verbal violence. Additionally, the soldier’s decision to detain the civilian without his commander’s approval was an error,” the IDF said.

“The violent behavior toward the civilian was unacceptable… and the soldier is not permitted to express himself in a belligerent manner while expressing a political affiliation,” the IDF added.

The probe also found that a dedicated police force should have been present in the area to better handle such situations. Fuchs ordered that police forces be on alert in areas “where there is a high potential for altercations.”

An Israeli soldier is seen punching a left-wing activist in Hebron in the West Bank, November 25, 2022. (Breaking the Silence)

Givati troops have been embroiled in several other recent behavioral incidents in Hebron that have led to suspensions.

A senior military commander on Monday warned Israeli troops they would face repercussions for immoral actions, following the Hebron incidents, and after three soldiers were arrested Monday on suspicion of hurling an explosive device at a Palestinian home.

The three soldiers involved were all from the Druze community, raising suspicions that the incident was related to the case of Druze teenager Tiran Fero, whose body was seized by Palestinian gunmen from a West Bank hospital after a car crash last week.

The West Bank has been on edge over the past year, with the IDF launching a major anti-terror offensive mostly focused on the northern West Bank to deal with a series of Palestinian attacks that have left 31 people in Israel and the West Bank dead since the start of the year. Hebron is in the southern part of the territory.

The operation has netted more than 2,500 arrests in near-nightly raids, but has also left around 150 Palestinians dead, many of them — but not all — while carrying out attacks or during clashes with security forces.

At the same time, there has been a steep rise in settler attacks against Palestinians and security forces.

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