'It's inappropriate, stop it'

With criticism rife, Bennett slams ‘politicization’ of border guard’s death

PM says ‘some are trying to use the IDF as a tool to advance cynical political goals,’ following censure of army after shooting of Barel Hadaria Shmueli by Gaza gunman

Prime Minister Naftali Bennett leads a cabinet meeting at the Prime Minister's Office in Jerusalem on September 5, 2021. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Prime Minister Naftali Bennett leads a cabinet meeting at the Prime Minister's Office in Jerusalem on September 5, 2021. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Prime Minister Naftali Bennett on Sunday condemned opposition lawmakers and activists who have criticized the army following the death last week of a Border Police sniper, who was fatally wounded during a riot along the Gaza border last month.

“I want to send a clear message from here to the uniformed [soldiers] and all Israeli citizens: I fully support the IDF commanders and their soldiers,” Bennett said at the opening of the cabinet meeting at the Prime Minister’s Office in Jerusalem.

“The IDF protects us all year round. Our job is to protect the IDF,” he said. “Some are trying to use the IDF as a cudgel to advance cynical political goals. It hurts our resilience and it’s inappropriate. Stop it.”

Barel Hadaria Shmueli was shot in the head at point-blank range by a Palestinian gunman on August 21 and succumbed to his wounds just over a week later.

His family, along with right-wing activists and opposition lawmakers, accused the military of issuing overly restrictive rules of engagement that they claim prevented troops from keeping the rioters away from the border fence. Shmueli’s father has suggested Prime Minister Naftali Bennett should resign over the incident, his mother has said she does not trust the government or the army, and the family has rejected the IDF’s investigation, demanding an independent inquiry.

The IDF has denied that the open-fire regulations were to blame — noting that Shmueli himself fired at the rioters when they rushed the border — and said that what was at issue was the way in which troops were deployed.

Border Police officer Barel Shmueli who was critically wounded in a shooting on the Gaza border, on August 21, 2021. He died of his injuries on August 30. (Border Police)

Bennett said Sunday, “As someone who knows the battlefield and has commanded soldiers, and as someone who has lost the best of his comrades, I know that while making decisions at an operational level, there are sometimes mistakes, and sometimes they are painful and difficult.

“This is how it is when fighting the enemy, and the soldiers and commanders need to be supported, especially when there are mistakes,” the prime minister said.

Bennett’s comments come a day after IDF chief of Staff Aviv Kohavi issued a highly unusual letter calling on the public to back the army amid the criticism.

“A society that does not back its soldiers and commanders, including when they make mistakes, will discover that it has nobody to fight for it,” Kohavi wrote in his missive, which was addressed to military commanders.

Alluding to the IDF investigation of Shmueli’s death, Kohavi noted that during combat, “decisions are usually made in situations of uncertainty, and quickly; therefore there is always the possibility of mistakes being made.” It was the IDF’s obligation to thoroughly investigate, “to get to the truth and learn the lessons, but mistakes of judgment on the battlefield are not matters for blame and punishment,” declared Kohavi.

“Commanders and soldiers, you have my fullest backing. Continue to initiate and to take responsibility, to dare, and to bear the consequences,” he wrote.

Kohavi visited the Shmueli family to pay his condolences on Sunday.

In response to Kohavi’s letter, Bennett called the army and top officers in the IDF Southern Command and assured them that they had his support.

“I want you to know and that everyone in uniform will know: My support for IDF commanders is total and complete. Whenever there’s a battle, there are mistakes. Sometimes they are tragic,” Bennett said.

A coffin carrying the body of Border Police officer Barel Hadaria Shmueli at a funeral in Tel Aviv, on August 30, 2021. Shmueli died nine days after being shot in the head during riots on the Gaza border. (Police spokesperson)

In a statement, the prime minister said that the “heartbreak for the entire country” over Shmueli’s death was “enormous,” and added that his family was entitled to say whatever they wanted.

“The family can do anything. It is our job to give answers, to listen and to embrace,” he said.

However, Bennett condemned the opposition lawmakers and activists who joined the family’s criticism. “I expect that politicians and public figures will not touch the IDF and its commanders. We have no other IDF,” he said.

On Friday, the IDF released the initial findings of its investigation into Shmueli’s death, blaming it principally on the way in which troops were deployed along the Gaza border barrier during the riot.

The military’s investigation found that the Northern Gaza Brigade commander may have been slow to respond when the rioters rushed the fence. Only after the masses reached the barrier did he order the soldiers stationed farther back to take positions closer to the border, where they could more effectively repel the rioters, according to the probe.

The IDF’s probe found that Shmueli himself fired a number of shots during the riot along the barrier, which strengthened the belief that the open-fire regulations were not an issue.

The findings of the IDF probe were presented to Shmueli’s family on Friday morning by the head of the IDF Southern Command, Maj. Gen. Eliezer Toledano. His family rejected the military’s investigation and called for an independent one, blaming his death on the government.

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