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Police minister criticizes IDF chief for military nonintervention in settler attacks

Omer Barlev pens letter to defense minister, asking him to clarify to army that soldiers can and should intervene in West Bank violence against Palestinians

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

Public Security Minister Omer Barlev (L) speaks during a plenum session in the assembly hall of the Knesset, January 31, 2022. IDF Chief of Staff Aviv Kohavi (R) speaks during a ceremony in Jerusalem, November 29, 2021. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)
Public Security Minister Omer Barlev (L) speaks during a plenum session in the assembly hall of the Knesset, January 31, 2022. IDF Chief of Staff Aviv Kohavi (R) speaks during a ceremony in Jerusalem, November 29, 2021. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

Public Security Minister Omer Barlev has written a letter to Defense Minister Benny Gantz criticizing army leadership and seeking more military involvement against settler violence against Palestinians in the West Bank, according to a Thursday report.

Barlev’s letter came after Israel Defense Forces chief Aviv Kohavi said soldiers in the West Bank were not required to intervene in settler attacks against Palestinians, the Walla news site reported.

Barlev, who oversees police, asked Gantz to make clear to Kohavi and other IDF officials that the attorney general has ruled that IDF soldiers can and should detain and arrest Israelis who are suspected of carrying out attacks in the West Bank.

There has been a rise in settler violence in recent months, and soldiers are sometimes seen standing by as they occur. Soldiers are legally permitted — even required in some cases — to intervene to prevent violent attacks, regardless of nationality. The military generally prefers that police deal with the attacks and settler arrests, but police do not have as much of a presence in the West Bank.

The overlapping areas of responsibility apparently led to a recent dustup between Barlev and Kohavi.

During a security cabinet meeting on Sunday, Barlev was asked about the police’s handling of settler attacks against Palestinians, left-wing Israeli activists, and Israeli security forces. He said it was under the responsibility of the IDF’s Central Command, and that police have limited manpower in the West Bank. He said soldiers stationed there have the same authority as police against Israeli civilians, Walla reported.

Barlev said IDF troops should detain Israelis involved in violent attacks until officers arrive, and said, “This authority is not sufficiently expressed.”

Kohavi responded: “That’s not true. There is no such thing,” according to Walla.

Kohavi cited a policy document written by the attorney general in 1998, which said it is preferable for police officers to act against Israeli citizens in the West Bank and not soldiers.

“I’m not going to argue with you right now, but you’re just wrong. You are quoting partial and incorrect things,” Barlev told Kohavi during the meeting.

Illustrative: Israeli soldiers stand by as masked Israeli settlers throw stones at Palestinian protesters (unseen) during a demonstration against construction on an Israeli outpost near the Palestinian village of Turmusaya and the settlement of Shilo, north of Ramallah in the West Bank, on October 17, 2019. (JAAFAR ASHTIYEH / AFP)

In Barlev’s letter to Gantz, he said, “The IDF chief of staff’s remarks do not comply with the provisions of the law.”

The letter asked Gantz to make it clear to Kohavi and relevant military officials that soldiers can and should arrest Israeli citizens. Copies of the letter were also sent to Prime Minister Naftali Bennett, cabinet ministers, and State Prosecutor and acting Attorney General Amit Aisman.

The letter noted that an IDF legal adviser for the West Bank, Col. Assem Hamad, had told a Knesset committee a few days ago that soldiers were expected to know they had the authority and responsibility to deal with attacks by Israelis against Palestinians.

Former IDF deputy chief of staff Yair Golan, now a coalition lawmaker, said on Friday that the IDF “has a desire to escape from politically controversial issues, and say ‘We don’t deal with settler violence.'”

“But the Judea and Samaria District Police are weak and those in the area are mainly IDF soldiers, so running away from responsibility is operationally incorrect,” he told Army Radio, referring to the West Bank by its biblical names.

Deputy Economy and Industry Minister Yair Golan, a legislator with the dovish Meretz party, poses during an interview with The Associated Press in his office at the Knesset, in Jerusalem, Jan. 17, 2022. (Tsafrir Abayov/AP)

Gantz, Barlev, and Golan have all called for a crackdown on settler violence against Palestinians, left-wing Israeli activists, and Israeli security forces, amid the increase in attacks over the past year.

The practice of non-intervention in settler attacks on Palestinians has come under increasing criticism in Israel as more and more video footage of such cases has come out and as foreign governments have increasingly expressed concern over the situation.

Last week, soldiers detained an Israeli man who had allegedly thrown rocks at Palestinian cars passing through a northern West Bank military checkpoint and then handed him over to the police, who apparently released him immediately, making no record of the incident.

The detention of a suspect marked a departure from the military’s unofficial policy of nonintervention, though the subsequent release of the man raised questions about the seriousness of Barlev’s claims that the police were trying to address the issue as well.

Judah Ari Gross contributed to this report.

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