Retiring army head warns rise in Jewish terror could ‘ignite’ region
Gadi Eisenkot says extremists need to be dealt with, laments support for ‘anti-hero’ Elor Azaria
Jacob Magid is The Times of Israel's US correspondent
Outgoing army head Gadi Eisenkot warned that Jewish extremist violence could spark intense violence in the West Bank, noting a significant rise in what he called “nationalistic crime.”
Eisenkot’s warning came days after authorities raided a religious school in a West Bank settlement as part of a probe into a deadly rock-throwing incident that left a Palestinian mother dead last year, amid reports of a 300% rise in Jewish terror incidents over 2018.
“What we’ve seen recently is a rise in nationalistic crime. This is a small group that is challenging the state, challenging the IDF,” Eisenkot told the Hadashot TV news outlet.
“This is a very grave phenomenon that must be dealt with,” he said.
“This could ignite the ground,” he added, referring to the West Bank.
Earlier this month, the Haaretz daily reported that there had been 482 cases of Jewish extremist attacks in the West Bank through mid-December 2018, up from 140 incidents a year earlier. These included attacks on Palestinians as well as vandalism such as spray paint, tires being slashed and trees chopped down.
Defense officials have vowed to treat all terror cases equally no matter the perpetrator but have been buffeted by attacks from both the right and left when dealing with Jewish suspects. Left-wing activists have accused authorities of dragging their feet in such cases in comparison to investigations into Palestinian attacks, while far-right Israelis say Jewish terror suspects have undergone coercion and torture.
Police last month arrested five minors from a yeshiva in the settlement of Rehelim on suspicion of “terror offenses, including murder.” The five are suspected of playing a role in the death of Palestinian woman Aisha Rabi, who was killed when the car she was traveling in was struck by stones hurled by suspected Jewish assailants.
On Thursday, police released four of the five suspects to house arrest, a day after raiding the Pri Haaretz yeshiva they attended and serving summonses to 80 students, according to the Honenu legal aid group which represents some of the suspects.
Eisenkot’s statement was part of a series of interviews published over the weekend as he steps down after four years at the helm of the Israel Defense Forces. He is expected to retire this week, with current deputy Aviv Kochavi taking over his position.
Eisenkot’s tenure as army chief was marked by unprecedented tumult as he was attacked by some on the far right for not intervening to stop the prosecution of Elor Azaria, an infantryman who shot and killed a disarmed and wounded Palestinian attacker in Hebron in March 2016.
Eisenkot stood by his decision, and dismissed Israelis who had made thinly veiled death threats against him during a protest in support of Azaria outside Defense Ministry headquarters, saying the army should remain part of a “national consensus.”
“This was very grave incident that should not have happened, where a soldier breaks the law, doesn’t follow orders and goes against the spirit of the IDF,” he said of Azaria’s actions.
He lamented that some had rallied around Azaria, who ultimately served nine months in jail for killing Abdel Fattah al-Sharif in Hebron on March 24, 2016.
“With some, unfortunately, [Azaria] is perceived as a hero but he’s very far from being a hero. He’s the definition of an anti-hero, not a hero,” he said.
Eisenkot also rebuffed a claim by Education Minister Naftali Bennett that soldiers worried about the legal repercussions of their actions were not carrying out their duties out of fear of prosecution in the wake of the Azaria case.
“It’s a fantasy,” he told Channel 10 news. “It’s a fairy tale.”