22 February '16..
After another week in which Palestinian terrorist attacks took the lives of more Israelis, you’d think these atrocities would dominate the news coming out of the Jewish state. But instead Israelis and their government are embroiled in a nasty fight concerning criticism of the chief of staff of the Israel Defense Forces. Lieutenant General Gadi Eisenkot stirred up a political hornet’s nest when he gave a speech to a group of high school students and explained the importance of restraint when soldiers deal with potential terrorists.
When there is a 13-year-old girl holding scissors or a knife, and there is a barrier between her and the soldiers, I wouldn’t want a soldier to open fire and empty a magazine into a girl like that, even if she commits a very serious act. We don’t operate on the basis of [Talmudic] adages like ‘If someone comes to kill you, rise up and kill him first.’
We don’t kill anyone with a pair of scissors. A soldier can switch off the safety and shoot if he or his comrades are in danger. If our rules of engagement were in any way unethical, it would jeopardize all of the IDF.
On its face, this was an unexceptional statement. Such restraint or “purity of arms” is part of the tradition of the Israeli army and soldiers have been instructed to behave in this manner since the IDF’s origins in the pre-state Haganah organization.
However, the problem was context. The statement was taken by many Israelis to be a criticism of the actions of some soldiers during the current “stabbing intifada.” Indeed, the mention of a girl with scissors seemed to invoke a particular case in which two Arab teens stabbed a 70-year-old Arab man (whom they mistook for a Jew). During the course of the attack, an off-duty policeman and a civilian shot the pair of assailants, leaving one dead and the other merely wounded. As it happened, neither “emptied their magazine” into the girls. But the comments were similar enough to the incident to cause an outcry among some Israelis who have been critical of statements from the general that appear to position him as opposing some of the government’s positions as well as absolving, at least in part, the Palestinian Authority for its role in fomenting the violence.
Columnist Ruthie Blum in Israel Hayom laid out the indictment of Eisenkot. She believes he is doing real harm to Israel’s position abroad by making statements that can be interpreted as implying that the IDF is overreacting to terrorists or that the violence is the natural result of the dilemma faced by the Palestinians.
But, predictably, Israel’s opposition leapt to the general’s defense and bashed Prime Minister Netanyahu for not offering Eisenkot some cover rather than let him face critics on his own. Within days, both Netanyahu and Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon sought to defuse the dispute and issued statements praising Eisenkot and the rules of engagement used by the IDF. If, as Blum pointed out, the general’s politics lean left, then, like so many of his predecessors, it’s likely that he will find his way to the Knesset after he retires from the army. As such, this kerfuffle is business as usual in a country where politics finds its way into everything. But even if we file this controversy away as just another day in the life of a country where anything, no matter how innocuous, can be fodder for a political firestorm, there is a more important lesson to be gleaned from the exchange that many in Israel don’t seem to understand.
Though Israelis are assailed by an unrelenting campaign of murder in which Palestinians educated to believe that any Jew is fair game for violence, the international community has not exactly rallied to its defense. Though the Palestinians have created the current stalemate by repeatedly refusing to make peace even when offered independence and control of almost all of the West Bank and a share of Jerusalem, much of the world continues to blame the Jews for everything that happens. Palestinian violence is rationalized and excused rather than unreservedly condemned, which is why some Israelis find Eisenkot’s comments so infuriating.
More to the point, Israel’s right of self-defense in the face of terror is being openly questioned by those who purport to defend human rights. The fact that armed Israelis have stopped many of those Palestinians who have attempted to slaughter Jews in the course of their attacks has been treated as being unfair to the terrorists. Most prominently Swedish Foreign Minister Margot Wallstrom has labeled the deaths of attempted murderers as “extrajudicial executions” and demanded international investigations of Israel’s actions.
The argument is similar to the outcry against Israel during the summer of 2014 when IDF counterattacks aimed at silencing Palestinian rockets that rained down in their thousands on Israeli cities and towns. At that time, Israel’s actions were treated as being somehow unfair because the Jewish state prioritized defending its citizens with the Iron Dome batteries while Hamas used bomb shelters for its arsenal and hid behind civilians who wound up being killed in the crossfire. Since more Palestinians have died trying to kill Israelis than the number of Jews they have actually slain, the contest is viewed as yet another example of Israeli beastliness to Palestinian victims.
That is why otherwise uncontroversial recitations of the extremely restrictive rules of engagement that Israeli troops labor under can become the source of fierce debate. Thus, while Netanyahu and Yaalon are right to reaffirm the humane principles that Israel stands for, Eisenkot would do well to remember that his country is fighting on more than one front. And though the IDF must worry more about terror than about fending off biased criticisms from hostile nations like Sweden, its leader should be more careful about feeding characters like Wallstrom more ammunition.
Whatever the political context of the general’s statements, the real issue that the Jewish state must focus on is not restraint — about which there is no real debate inside the country — but why Palestinians and their cheerleaders are so eager to delegitimize Israeli self-defense. The goal of the “stabbing intifada” like that of every other offensive undertaken by the Palestinians is to chip away at Israeli morale and its foreign support. Palestinians continue to view the murder of all Jews as heroic and to believe that Israel has no right to exist within any borders. It is those beliefs that motivate the terrorists and force Israeli soldiers into having to make split-second life and death decisions to defend themselves and civilians. They deserve support for their efforts, not sniping from domestic or foreign critics.
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