In a letter to the officers in his command early this week, the head of the Israel Defense Forces’ Judea and Samaria Division declared that “immoral and illegal actions” by IDF soldiers against Palestinians would not be tolerated.
“Those who cannot control themselves and do not undertake to operate professionally during a security mission and in accordance with the spirit of the IDF will have no place with us,” warned Brig. Gen. Eran Niv. “We will stand firm against our subordinates.”
Niv went on to assert that the use of force is legitimate only when required for the execution of a mission, and only against those who pose an immediate threat. So, for example, he explained, it’s OK to break down the door of a suspect, but not to trash his home as a form of punishment.
According to Kan 11 News, which broke the story on Monday evening, Niv was spurred to pen this directive by four investigations underway into the allegedly criminal or unbecoming conduct of IDF soldiers in the field.
Too bad Niv is not among them.
In the first place, such a seasoned, high-ranking officer ought to be aware that his dramatic “new” directive is as old as the 1994 IDF Code of Ethics and Mission. In fact, if it weren’t for that 25-year-old document—concerned with the “purity of arms” of the Israeli military—none of the investigations that supposedly sparked his letter would be taking place.
Nor would so many Israeli boys and girls in uniform be given the sense that they need to sling their rifles over their shoulders to free up their hands for law books and cameras. Fear of not being able to provide evidence at a later date to judges and hostile NGOs that they acted according to the IDF’s often ridiculously stringent rules of engagement will do that.
Secondly, anyone unfamiliar with the daily dangers faced by IDF soldiers might get the impression from Niv’s letter that it is they, and not Palestinian terrorists (referred to by Niv as “suspects”) who have been perpetrating rock-throwing, stabbing, car-ramming, bombing, fire-ballooning and rocket attacks against innocent people.
Third, as Maj. Gen. (Res.) Uzi Dayan, former IDF deputy chief of staff, told Israel’s Channel 20 on Monday evening, “A commander must provide backup to his soldiers, not throw them under the bus.”
Dayan, who served a stint as head of the IDF Central Command, said that it was his job as a commanding officer to accomplish two seemingly contradictory things: achieve victory—which he called the “highest military value”—and protect the lives of his soldiers. The message he conveyed to his men was that he was charged with making sure that they all performed the duties for which they were trained and to lead by example.
“When something goes wrong,” he added, “I do not remove myself from the fray; I am part of it.”
Dayan explained that this is why he prefers “debriefings” to Military Police investigations related to failures or mistakes made during combat. “I told my soldiers: ‘I’ll punish you if I have to, but I will always have your back.’ ”
This taking of personal responsibility is befitting of someone leading others into battle. The attitude that Niv expressed in his letter, on the other hand, is worthy of scorn, if not a demotion by court-martial.
Ruthie Blum is an Israel-based journalist and author of “To Hell in a Handbasket: Carter, Obama, and the ‘Arab Spring.’ ”