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May 16, 2016 5:12 pm

Former IDF General: We Are Not the Palestinian Defense Forces

avatar by Ruthie Blum

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IDF soldiers in Hebron. Photo: Wikipedia.

IDF soldiers in Hebron. Photo: Wikipedia.

“Anyone who thinks it necessary to give higher priority to the mother of a Palestinian than to the mother of an Israeli soldier has a moral problem… the Israel Defense Forces are not the Palestinian Defense Forces” a former IDF brigadier general said on Monday, the Hebrew news site nrg reported.

According to the report, Shmuel Zakai made this comment during an interview with Israel’s Army Radio, following the scandal surrounding the release of 10-year-old recordings of IDF Deputy Chief of Staff Yair Golan. In the tapes, Golan – who made headlines on Holocaust Remembrance Day for comparing Israel to 1930s Germany – said that “soldiers must put themselves at risk to prevent injuring innocent civilians.”

Though Zakai, who today serves as the general director of Ben-Gurion Airport — did not mention Golan by name in the interview, he referred to and rebutted his positions.

“Theoretically, everybody wants everything – to execute missions with no harm to IDF soldiers or innocent civilians,” he said. “But when you are in a combat situation, you have to choose between values. This choice brings us back to the foundation on which the army is built… Its essence is to protect the citizens of the state of Israel. All citizens of the state swear the soldier’s oath to carry out their missions and to protect [Israeli] civilians while risking their own lives. In other words, it is not only permissible to risk their lives to protect their civilians, it is their duty to do so.”

On the next rung on the value hierarchy, he said, “lies the obligation to perform military tasks with minimum harm to the soldiers themselves. On the third is the moral obligation to perform these tasks, while striving to minimize injury to innocent civilians.”

He continued, “This discussion has to take place between commanders and their soldiers. Everything is a question of degree, of balance and of exercising judgement. The IDF is not a gang, and it doesn’t go out with the intention to kill civilians. When civilians get killed, it is because of battlefield situations and sometimes mistakes.”

Zakai recounted an incident in which an IDF officer was killed as a result of the decision to help a Palestinian family while fighting was going on. “After the explosion of an APC in Rafah [in the Gaza Strip] in 2004, a Givati Brigade [infantry] force took position in the home of a Palestinian family for a few days. The soldiers offered the family to share their food and eat with them, but the mother said she wanted to cook for her children. So the commander of the force escorted her down from the second floor so she could cook in her kitchen below. While escorting the woman, the officer was hit in the head by a bullet and killed. While conducting an interrogation of the incident, I told the company commander, ‘You made a professional mistake, but you also made a poor moral choice. You had offered your food, so why did you decide the woman should be taken down to cook?’”

Zakai concluded, “These situations are complex, and when you’re in them there has to be a clear ethical choice, which includes executing tasks whose goal is to protect the soldiers, and only after that not to harm innocent civilians. Whoever says otherwise has a moral problem.”

Sunday’s revelation of the tape recordings of Golan from a decade ago – when he was commander of the Gaza Division – were remarks he made to students at the pre-army academy in Nokdim in the West Bank.

Among the many topics he discussed, the issue of ethics was one of them. About this, he said, “If a combat unit has to take risks in order to prevent injury to innocent civilians, it will do so; if it needs to hit only terrorists, it will do so in the safest way possible.” Golan also called illegal construction in the outpost of Amona “an abomination.”

Zakai was forcibly discharged from the IDF in 2005  — after 24 years of service — by order of then-Chief of Staff Moshe Ya’alon, currently Israel’s defense minister, over accusations that he leaked reports to the media that the army wanted to end the Days of Penitance Operation in Gaza, a mission to eliminate sites from where Hamas had been launching rockets at Israel. It was sparked by the killing of two children in the southern Israeli town of Sderot, and named after the Jewish high holidays of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, during which it took place.

At the time, Ya’alon reportedly said Zakai’s action constituted “an abandonment of a division during combat.”

Zakai’s comments came on the heels of a rift between Ya’alon and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu over the former’s backing of Golan’s Holocaust Remembrance Day remarks. On Monday, Netanyahu and Ya’alon announced they had made their peace, as ministers in their party, Likud, continued to voice harsh criticism of the defense minister.

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