image Photo: Flash90

Ben-Gvir warned not to politicize IDF

Israeli leaders have condemned perceived attempts by politicians of the incoming government to interfere with IDF command decisions.

By Erin Viner

Otzma Yehudit leader MK Itamar Ben-Gvir invoked a firestorm of criticism after he spoke out against  top military brass for disciplining soldiers who clashed with leftwing activists in Hebron last Friday.

Five Givati Brigade soldiers were suspended from operational duty for hitting and cursing the protestors, following an investigation by commander of the Central Command, Major General Yehuda Fox.

Emphasizing the IDF’s reputation as ‘the most moral army in the world,’ Maj. Gen. Fox commented “the behavior of the soldiers is an unusual and serious case. A soldier must not behave and express himself in a way that contradicts the values of the IDF with an emphasis on the value of statehood and the purity of weapons. I support the soldiers of the IDF, in any use of force required to remove a threat, at the same time we will not accept incidents in which soldiers will go beyond and use their force and authority unnecessarily.”

Givati Brigade Commander Colonel Eliad Moati and Commander of the Sabar Battalion Lieutenant Colonel Aviran Alfasi ordered the ten-day confinement of one of the soldiers at a military base, after he was seen on video telling protestors that MK Ben-Gvir, who has just been appointed National Security Minister, “will create order here. You’ve lost it. All you do here is finished.” The serviceman went on to say, “I decide what the law is, and you are acting against the law.”

IDF Chief of Staff Lieutenant General Aviv Kochavi supported the disciplinary actions after speaking to Col. Moati and Lt. Col. Alfasi.

In an appeal of his sentence sent yesterday to Maj. Gen. Fox and Col. Maoti, the penalized soldier wrote, “I said a few words without any intention of humiliating the IDF or committing an offense and I now find myself going to jail. 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.”

Reaffirming that “violent behavior against a citizen is unacceptable,” the IDF released a statement stressing “it is forbidden for a fighter to express himself in a belligerent way while expressing a political position;” and that, “the fighter admitted his actions, expressed remorse, stated that he understood the gravity of the actions and accepted the responsibility for committing the crime.”

MK Ben-Gvir immediately blasted the IDF action, saying it “weakens the hands of the soldiers and does not strengthen them in the fight against terrorism” and that it “very unfortunate that a soldier who suffered harassment was sent to prison, just for mentioning my name.”

In addition, the far-right politician published a video yesterday, while standing in a demonstration of solidarity with the father of the sentenced soldier. “I demand that the Chief of Staff and the entire command think twice about this punishment,” he said, insisting, “it cannot be that anarchists curse, spit and attack our heroic soldiers.” He proceeded to say the ten-day confinement was, “unreasonable, disproportionate and simply incorrect. Our job is to support our fighters to support our soldiers, and I demand that the army think twice about this punishment – it’s a very bad message.”

Several members of Prime Minister Designate Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud party also reportedly criticized the IDF decision.

Lt. Col. Alfasi has since then been targeted by threats and abusive comments posted online and in messages sent to his cell phone. In defense of Alfasi, Maj. Gen. Fox asserted that it is unacceptable to “taint” the name of “a moral officer and an excellent commander.”

Alfasi was decorated with a commendation medal for voluntarily risking his own life risk to descend into a Hamas terror tunnel to Gaza in attempts to retrieve the body of fallen MIA Second Lieutenant Hadar Goldin during the 2014 Operation Protective Edge. According to former IDF Deputy Chief of Staff Yair Golan, Alfasi has served in the “most difficult and most complex” arenas and positions “with faith and great talent while demonstrating exceptional courage and leadership. I have no doubt that he is an excellent military officer, and in one of the most difficult, most complex, most ungrateful places – Hebron.”

Outgoing Prime Minister Yair Lapid wrote in a furious message posted 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,” adding, “The new government has not yet taken office and its ministers are already inciting the IDF soldiers against their commanders.”

Stressing that ministers and MKs have no right to override military orders, he said that the nation’s soldiers “lives and ours depend on having a strong military with a clear chain of command and battle discipline. This incitement, masquerading as ‘support,’ is dangerous, irresponsible, and erodes the strength of the IDF.”

The IDF Spokesperson’s Unit also issued a response from Lt. Gen. Kochavi, in which he said that “Slandering commanders on political grounds is a slippery slope that we as a society must not slide down” and “the commanders, and only the commanders, determine the norms and the manner of handling incidents in their units.” The IDF Chief of Staff “made it clear that attacking (Alfasi) is unacceptable, and any political interference in commanders’ decisions is unacceptable.”

“Political interference in the IDF directly harms the army’s ability to carry out its tasks, and its legitimacy,” the Chief of Staff went on to warn, vowing, “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.”

Ben-Gvir was quick to fire back at Kochavi, saying “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.” In an insult to Lt. Gen. (Res.) Benny Gantz, the incoming National Security Minister added, “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.”

Breaking his silence on the matter, Netanyahu today sent out a Tweet, stating: “The IDF is the people’s army, I call on everyone, right and left, to leave it out of any political debate.”

IDF soldiers have contended with skyrocketing challenges in the West Bank in recent months. Troops have conducted near-nightly raids with the Israeli Security Agency (ISA) and Border Police Special Operations Units as part of Operation Waves Breaker, launched eight months ago to counter terrorism in response to a deadly surge of attacks against Israelis that has now killed 31 people in Israel since since the start of the year.