The Israeli military isn’t what it once was

IDF spokesman public questioning of Netanyahu’s Gaza war vow to destroy Hamas echoes the military’s message three decades ago to then PM Yitzhak Rabin during the first Palestinian Intifada in the early 1990s.

History repeats itself, albeit with a tweak.

Israel Defense Forces (IDF) spokesman Daniel Hagari’s public questioning of Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s Gaza war vow to destroy Hamas echoes the military’s message three decades ago to then Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin during the first Palestinian Intifada in the early 1990s.

“We can solve this but not at a price that either you or we are willing to accept. This is a political problem. You solve it,” Chief of Staff Lt. General Daniel Shomron told Mr. Rabin at the time.

This week, Mr. Hagari made a similar argument regarding Hamas.

“The idea of destroying Hamas is simply throwing sand in the eyes of the public…Hamas is an idea, Hamas is a political party…whoever thinks we can eliminate Hamas is mistaken,” Mr. Hagari said.

The military and Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu are at loggerheads over Mr. Netanyahu’s refusal to plan how Gaza will be governed once the war is over.

Senior officers have warned that Israel risks losing its gains in the war. Mr. Netanyahu’s detractors charge that he has an interest in prolonging hostilities.

The friction between the military and Mr. Netanyahu compounds the fact that Mr. Hagari and Mr. Shomron’s conscription militaries are very different beasts.

Mr. Shomron’s armed forces reflected an Israeli public that was empathetic to a political resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, despite the military’s brutal effort to suppress the Intifada.

His were the days of the Palestine Liberation Organisation recognising Israel and abandoning the armed struggle and the conclusion of the Oslo accords.

Those were the days, when Shas, an ultra-conservative party, joined Mr. Rabin’s Labour-led left-wing government in advance of the accords.

“The Haredim (ultra-conservatives), then, led by Shas, were on the cutting edge of Israel’s move towards peace and regional conciliation,” journalist Anschel Pfeffer quotes David Landau, the late editor of Haaretz, an Israeli newspaper, as saying in 1993.

Today, Shas is part of Mr. Netanyahu’s ultra-nationalist, ultra-conservative government.

Similarly, Mr. Hagari’s military is an armed force that has been brutalized by more than half a century of occupation of Palestinian lands that is designed to humiliate, coerce, and intimidate.

Mr. Hagari’s military is an armed force that has been brutalized by more than half a century of occupation of Palestinian lands, which is designed to humiliate, coerce, and intimidate.

It is a military that adheres to the ‘Dahiya’ doctrine, first formulated in 2008 by General Gadi Eisenkot, a former chief of staff who recently resigned together with former Defence Minister Benny Gantz, as a member of Mr. Netanyahu’s now defunct war cabinet.

Named after Lebanese Shiite Muslim Hezbollah militia’s Beirut stronghold, the Dahiya doctrine legitimises the massive destruction of civilian infrastructure in countering political violence and armed resistance. Israel reduced much of Dahiya to a pile of ruins during its 2006 war with Hezbollah.

The doctrine holds that in asymmetric wars in which the enemy holds territory populated by a supportive population destruction of infrastructure and civilians’ homes with disproportionate force is essential.

As tension with Hezbollah mounted this week, Israel Defense and Security Forum CEO Lt. Col. (res.) Yaron Buskila asserted, “This is exactly the time to take action against Hezbollah and Lebanon as a country and attack civilian infrastructures… We are at war. Any target within Lebanon that causes pressure on Lebanese society is legitimate. It could be an airport, energy areas, and others.”

In December, Mr. Netanyahu threatened, “If Hezbollah chooses to start an all-out war, then it will single-handedly turn Beirut and South Lebanon…into Gaza.”

When Israeli President Isaac Herzog declared ten days after Hamas’ October 7 attack that “It is an entire nation out there responsible,” he was echoing Avigdor Lieberman, who as defence minister in 2018 declared, “There are no innocents in Gaza.”

Mr. Lieberman spoke as Israeli forces fired tear gas and live ammunition at largely peaceful protesters on the Gazan side of the border.

Messrs. Herzog and Lieberman’s remarks suggest that the evolution of an Israeli environment, which refuses to see Palestinians as humans and legitimises racist and genocidal language predates the October 7 attack.

It’s an environment that militant rabbis and ultra-nationalist politicians encourage.

Mr. Gantz, the former defence minister, who is widely viewed as a potential next prime minister, boasted that “parts of Gaza were sent back to the Stone Age” during the 2014 war when he was chief of staff.

The environment contextualises videos of Israeli soldiers celebrating the death of Gazans and the Strip’s devastation and mocking innocent civilians that echo genocidal statements by Israeli leaders and politicians.

In one video recorded in the Strip that recently resurfaced, Lt. Col. David Levi, a Givati Brigade commander and West Bank veteran, charged that the October 7 attack had been carried out by ”two-legged animals of the Arabs, who are called in a historical lie Palestinians… Only total annihilation will send the message to the rest who desire to take the soul of the Israeli nation.”

Similarly, members of Mr. Netanyahu’s Likud party do not mince their words.

The Gaza war “will be a victory when they lose land. When the House of Islam turns into the House of the Jews. They won’t be able to deny the victory. That will be a victory, a real victory,” said Likud member of the Knesset, the Israeli parliament, Ariel Kellner.

The Dahiya doctrine, images of Gaza’s devastation, IDF soldiers’ social media postings, and statements by officials, politicians, religious figures, and pundits call into question Israeli assertions that its military is among the world’s “most moral.”

Taken to task by the Biden administration, Netzah Yehuda (Judah’s Eternity), a religious ultra-nationalist unit whose members include vigilante West Bank settlers, symbolises the shift in the Israeli military that alongside the Dahiya doctrine goes a long way to explain Israel’s war conduct.

Linked to multiple abuses of international law while serving for much of its existence in the West Bank, Netzah Yehuda reflects the growing influence of ultra-nationalists and ultra-conservatives in the military.

Government-subsidised religious schools, or yeshivot hesder, with a military segment in their curricula, have educated many in the armed forces’ officer corps for more than two decades.

General Ofer Winter, a former Givati Brigade commander and graduate from a hesder yeshiva, ruffled feathers during the 2008-2009 Gaza war by describing it as the execution of “divine will.”

Mr. Winter led his troops in prayers asking “God, Lord of Israel, make our mission successful, as we are about to do battle for your people, against an enemy that curses your name.”

At one point, the Bnei David pre-army preparatory yeshiva featured a  quote on its wall by one of its instructors, Rabbi Joseph Kalner, charging that “all secular Jews are traitors and the state can do anything to sanction them, including putting a bullet through their head.”

Israeli police, supervised by ultra-nationalist National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir, this week advised the attorney general’s office to shelve a case against Rabbi Eliyahu Mali.

A proponent of permanent Israeli re-settlement of Gaza on religious grounds, Mr. Mali’s Shirat Moshe Yeshiva received US$800,000 in government support in 2023.

Mr. Mali’s yeshiva in Jaffa aims to dispossess Palestinians still resident in what is today a southern suburb of Tel Aviv, once Palestine’s most populous city,

Speaking in March at a conference of yeshivot hesder, Mr. Mali argued citing scripture, “The basic rule we have when fighting a holy war, in this case, Gaza, is the doctrine of ‘not sparing a soul.’ The logic of this is very clear. If you don’t kill them, they will try to kill you. Today’s saboteurs are the children of the previous war whom we kept alive.“

Mr. Mali went on to say, “Today’s terrorists are the children of the prior operation that left them alive. The women are essentially the ones who are producing the terrorists. It’s not only the 14- or 16-year-old boy, the 20- or 30-year-old man who takes up a weapon against you but also the future generation. There’s really no difference.”

Dr. James M. Dorsey
Dr. James M. Dorsey
Dr. James M. Dorsey is a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, co-director of the University of Würzburg’s Institute for Fan Culture, and the author of The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer blog, a book with the same title, Comparative Political Transitions between Southeast Asia and the Middle East and North Africa, co-authored with Dr. Teresita Cruz-Del Rosario and three forthcoming books, Shifting Sands, Essays on Sports and Politics in the Middle East and North Africaas well as Creating Frankenstein: The Saudi Export of Ultra-conservatism and China and the Middle East: Venturing into the Maelstrom.