DECEMBER 9, 2022
Palestine Opinion Israel Opinion

Opinion: To cover for war crimes, Israel claims it ‘lost control’ over soldiers

Opinion: To cover for war crimes, Israel claims it ‘lost control’ over soldiers

by Robert Inlakesh

Several months after media commentators began predicting a “strategic defeat” for Israeli forces in Gaza, Israel’s military high command is claiming it has lost control over various units in their armed forces. 

The argument appears to scapegoat occupation soldiers to provide plausible deniability for their superiors and dissociate them from war crimes charges. The vast body of evidence emerging on these alleged ‘rogue Israeli units’ could potentially lead to a damning indictment of Tel Aviv’s military leadership.

Despite the International Court of Justice’s (ICJ) recent call on Israel to halt its military operation in Gaza’s southernmost city of Rafah, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu remains resolute in his vow to invade, even while personally facing an International Criminal Court (ICC) arrest warrant. Marred by internal division and pressure to comply with the ICJ order, Tel Aviv finds itself in a precarious position.

‘Rogue units’ in the occupation army 

Hebrew-daily Haaretz dropped a narrative bombshell last weekend when it claimed that the Israeli army’s “General Staff lost control over the units, especially reserve units, months ago.” The article attempts to depict a situation in which Chief of Staff Herzi Halevi has just “woken up” to the reality of allegedly rogue elements operating under his watch, with these ‘uncontrolled units’ committing the crimes cited by the ICJ against Israel.

Throughout the war in Gaza, Israeli soldiers have been publishing evidence of themselves committing crimes, showing genocidal intent, and performing perverse acts while operating inside the besieged coastal territory. 

These incriminating clips, published primarily on TikTok and Instagram and also within Telegram groups that glorify the killing of Palestinian civilians, have attracted a lot of bad press. It appears that Israel’s leadership is now floating the “few bad apples” strategy to absolve their military high brass of accountability.

It won’t be easy. Some of these social media groups are run by occupation officials. Furthermore, the Israeli military establishment has admitted to running accounts on Telegram that showcase snuff films as part of a psychological warfare operation under the “Operations Directorate’s Influencing Department.”

Which units have gone rogue?

As of now, there is no official list of the units that have allegedly ‘gone rogue.’ Haaretz writer Amos Harel proposes that these troops can simply be identified by those who have posted incriminating videos of themselves.

Consider the case of Yair Ben David, a commander in the 2908th Battalion, cited in the South African ICJ submission for expressing genocidal intent. He boasted about the destruction his forces caused in Beit Hanoun, northern Gaza, referencing a biblical story where all male inhabitants were massacred, and stated, “the entire Gaza should resemble Beit Hanoun.” 

Despite this statement being made in a video published on social media in December 2023, there has been no action taken by Israel’s military leadership to rein in his unit.

Another Haaretz article published in late January, titled ‘The Israeli Army Must Act Before Some of Its Soldiers Turn Into Lawless Gangs,’ referenced Ben David’s comment and noted that “90 reservist battalion commanders petitioned the IDF chief of staff not to stop in Gaza, Lebanon, and the West Bank until victory.” 

David Bar Kalifa, commander of Division 36, the largest regular division in the Israeli army, was also quoted in the article for his orders of “vengeance” against the Palestinian population. However, Tel Aviv has taken no actions to structurally change or reform the division, which was instead later transitioned to the Lebanese border, despite the head of Israel’s Southern Command, Yaron Finkelman, arguing for them to move to central Gaza.

Aviad Yisraeli, an officer in the 261 Brigade’s 6261st Battalion, openly posted on social media about his intent to “make sure there is no one left” before participating in the invasion of Khan Yunis in December. Yisraeli, who lives in an illegal settler outpost near Bethlehem in the occupied West Bank, was not disciplined by his superiors and was recently deployed to Rafah.

On 6 May, when Israeli forces seized the Rafah Crossing, soldiers filmed themselves destroying and desecrating the crossing and posting the footage on social media. These soldiers belonged to the 401st Brigade of the 162nd Division, while the Givati Brigade captured other areas east of Rafah. 

The Rafah Crossing seizure was perhaps one of the most sensitive military offensives committed by the Israelis during the entire war because their entrance into what is known as the ‘Philadelphi Corridor’ technically violated the 1979 Camp David agreement with Egypt. The use of the 401st Brigade, known for its subordination, reflects a deeper issue within the Israeli high command.

Israeli military spokesperson Daniel Hagari has been urging soldiers not to film such acts for months, which is a clear indication that the army leadership has long been aware of their actions. No disciplinary actions have been taken to date – the most proactive measure conducted by authorities has been to announce police’ investigations’ into the posting of footage online. And there has been no follow-up on these inquiries into the thousands of videos, photos, and posts from soldiers.

Controlling chaos

If the Israeli leadership has truly lost control of entire units in their military, why would such units be deployed back into action in sensitive areas like the West Bank, Gaza Strip, and along the Lebanese border? 

Such reckless decision-making, involving soldiers suspected of not following orders and whose videos are used as evidence of genocidal intent at the ICJ, is a significant indictment of the Israeli high command.

In January, a report by the Hebrew ‘Kan Reshet Bet’ radio stated:

Reservist fighters who were called to training ahead of the establishment of the Hashomer Brigade … have severely criticized the serious gaps in equipment, professionalism, the lack of manpower and especially the fact that in the middle of the training they were informed that they were entering the Gaza Strip without having trained as required.

Such reports are not uncommon in Israeli media and reflect the state of the military leadership’s decision-making. When combined with numerous statements of genocidal intent, as documented by Palestinian rights group Al-Haq, from both military and political leadership, it paints a picture of controlled chaos.

The South African legal team at the ICJ linked Netanyahu’s invocation of the biblical story of Amalek to Israeli soldiers, interpreting this as a call to mass murder Palestinian civilians. Potential war crimes motivated by such rhetoric cannot be isolated to individuals when military leadership decisions allow such behavior.

If the Israeli high command is unaware of radical and uncontrolled elements within their military, how do they explain the formation of the ‘Desert Frontier’ unit, which has integrated extremist settlers from the ‘Hilltop Youth?’ This radical group of settler-vigilantes was previously described by Israeli media as terrorists for attacking Israeli soldiers and Palestinian civilians.

An environment of impunity

This problem of reckless soldier behavior did not begin in 2023; it stems from Israeli troops operating in an environment of complete impunity. During the 2008/9 war in Gaza, the worst punishment doled out to an Israeli soldier committing a crime was for stealing a credit card – not for killing, torturing, beating Palestinians, or razing their homes, businesses, and land. 

Or for using Palestinians as human shields – a crime Tel Aviv attributes to Hamas, but one its troops commit daily. According to B’Tselem, two soldiers involved in using a nine-year-old boy as a human shield received a three-month conditional sentence and were demoted from staff sergeant to private two years after the incident. None of their commanding officers were tried.

The two soldiers in question had ordered a nine-year-old boy, at gunpoint, to open a bag they suspected was booby-trapped. Despite the gravity of their conduct - putting a young child at risk – the two were given a three-month conditional sentence and demoted from staff sergeant to private some two years after the incident took place. None of their commanding officers were tried.

Since then, troop behaviors have only worsened. Despite there being so many more documented cases of Israeli soldiers deploying Palestinian civilians – often children – as human shields, this was the last case punished by the Israeli judicial system.

The argument that Israel’s military leadership is only now waking up to the reality of their soldiers’ misconduct serves to create plausible deniability. It is no coincidence that extremist ideologues have been empowered in the Israeli army and that ill-disciplined soldiers, encouraged by their leaders’ genocidal rhetoric, are given carte blanche to commit crimes against Palestinians.

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