The Israel Defense Forces has released the conclusions of a preliminary investigation into the death of border police officer Barel Hadaria Shmueli, who was shot Aug. 21 during violent clashes that occurred along the border fence with Gaza. The investigation concluded that battle orders and operational preparedness for dealing with demonstrations along the Gaza border were "thorough and comprehensive," and that open-fire policies did not change before or during the incident. Nevertheless, it also determined that the IDF should have deployed its troops and changed its use of force as soon as the mass of demonstrators reached the separation fence. No steps will be taken against the officers involved in the deadly incident.
Around the time the results of the investigation were released on Sept. 3, the head of the Southern Command, Maj. Gen. Eliezer Toledano, paid a condolence call to the soldier’s bereaved family and presented them with these findings. They said that they will not accept “the findings, the conclusions, or the bottom line that no measures will be taken by the high command against any officer whatsoever.”
Confronted with criticism by Shmueli’s family, Bennett said Sept. 4, "The family is allowed everything — our job is to give answers, listen and hug." Addressing the issue again Sept. 5, Bennett said, “I want to send a clear message to those in uniform and all citizens of Israel. I completely back the commanders and soldiers of the IDF. The IDF protects us every day of the year, and it is our job to protect the IDF.” Acknowledging that mistakes might have been committed, Bennett added, “That is how it is when we are fighting an enemy, and we must back the soldiers and commanders, especially when there are mistakes.”
Shmueli’s tragic death seems to have become a political flashpoint and is causing further discord in Israel’s already divided society. A growing protest movement by active IDF troops on social media demands, “Untie our hands!” The protest focuses on the alleged operational failure during the incident and contends that a senior IDF commander prevented troops from protecting themselves even though their lives were in danger. Notably, the IDF’s investigation found these claims to be false.
On Sept. 2, Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Aviv Kochavi made a point of pushing back against this argument, saying, “Our soldiers and commanders are expected to use all the tools available to them. The orders for opening fire are unequivocal and clear. Any claim otherwise is baseless.”
Last month the chief of staff requested that the IDF’s top brass take steps to reduce incidents of troops firing on Palestinians in the West Bank. Over 40 West Bank Palestinians were killed by IDF troops since May. Kochavi was responding to concerns from the government and defense establishment that the growing death rate among Palestinians could lead to an escalation of violence in the West Bank.
The “Untie our hands!” campaign slogan is very similar to the one used in the reservist protest of 2006: “They’ve tied our hands!” That protest, which began during the Second Lebanon War, called on Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Defense Minister Amir Peretz to resign. There was a feeling among IDF soldiers that the high command was not taking advantage of the power in its hands. Soldiers felt that they could have taken action had their commanders not been holding them back. These claims are very similar to the ones being heard by soldiers today.
The similarity between the two protests does not end with their respective slogans. Once again, former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is lurking in the shadows. Numerous sources claim that he was really running the show from behind the scenes during the 2006 protests. His people, it is claimed, engineered and fueled that protest to take down Olmert. Inevitably, the similarity is raising questions: Is the current protest authentic, or is it political manipulation?
A former high-ranking IDF officer now serving as a major general in the reserves discussed the latest protest with Al-Monitor on condition of anonymity. He claimed, “Evidently, what we are witnessing now is a political campaign. The IDF’s orders for opening fire haven’t changed in the last 15 years. On the contrary, there are some people who claim that they have been relaxed, leading to the deaths of more than a few innocent Palestinians. The entire campaign is, therefore, based on the interests of Benjamin Netanyahu, with the purpose of delegitimizing the current government. It is reminiscent of the campaign after the Second Lebanon War, which, as it later turned out, was not the resounding failure so many people tried to claim. A soldier was killed and most Israelis identify with the suffering and pain of the family, but they do not identify with the political aspect of it."
Now, Prime Minister Naftali Bennett's government is facing a similar protest. In 2006, however, while serving as Netanyahu’s chief of staff, Bennett reportedly promoted the reservists’ protest and involve families of fallen soldiers and other groups in order to bring down Olmert. Is history repeating itself? Is Bennett about to face what he once tried to do to others?
Itamar Fleischman is a media consultant who served as Bennett’s spokesperson in 2015. He told Al-Monitor that the protest is not political.
“It is an authentic protest,” he said. “I think that the core of the protests is authentic, as seen by the tens of thousands of people who gathered to pray for the soldier when he was first wounded. The orders about when to open fire are very confusing. Soldiers have a hard time understanding them. It is not at all clear when they can shoot and when they cannot.” Asked why the protest broke out only after there was a change of government and not during Netanyahu’s tenure, while those orders have not changed, he responded, “We screamed about it during the Netanyahu era too. Unfortunately, the problem was not fixed. When it came to Gaza, Netanyahu was always very reluctant to act. When it comes to demonstrations along the border fence, the real measure of success is that soldiers don’t get hurt. He achieved that.”