Israeli protests expose divisions in the military

Demonstrators hold up a placard excoriating Israel's leaders for doing "so much harm to so many."

Israeli protesters have taken to the streets in their thousands against the government’s proposed judicial reforms. But the participation of some in the military has exposed deep divisions among troops. 

Matan Golan SIPA USA

Is Israel facing an existential crisis?

The panic prevalent in Israeli media at the moment has happened before: in 1948, 1967 and 1973, each time as Israel faced a conventional war in which victory was uncertain.

But the conventional armies of Egypt, Jordan and Syria, which were seen as threats to Israel’s existence during those three wars, are not threatening Israel today. Today it is Israel’s own military that is turning against itself.

As media report a “rebellion” within the Israeli military, pointing to the thousands of soldiers who refuse to serve as an act of protest against the far-right coalition government’s judicial overhaul, a picture emerges that ties these refusals together. The soldiers who refuse are the privileged elite of the Israeli armed forces: intelligence officers, drone operators, pilots, military doctors.

Yagil Levy, a sociology professor, offers a better analysis – these soldiers are not really rebelling, their refusal is better defined as an act of desertion. The soldiers who are in open revolt are the other side of the army, what Levy calls “Israel’s second army” – the foot soldiers, armor, artillery, Border Police and snipers.

Levy highlights the ethnic and economic divides in the Israeli military.

The “second army” is comprised mostly of Mizrahi Jews (Jews of Arab origin) and other marginalized and discriminated groups, like Druze soldiers. The “first army” is an army of Ashkenazis (European Jews).

The “first army” comes from Israel’s wealthiest towns and cities, from graduates of the finest high schools, and many of these soldiers and officers obtain academic degrees during their military service. The “second army” is recruited from Israel’s periphery and includes many high school dropouts.

“First army” positions in the army guarantee high-paying jobs upon discharge, but “second army” soldiers are rewarded “only” with the freedom to assert their colonial supremacy through uninhibited violence against Palestinians.

The division in the Israeli military cuts along religious lines as well. The “second army” is openly religious, especially the notorious Netzah Yehuda battalion, while the “first army” is nearly homogenous with its pretense of false secularism.

Impunity for all

It’s important to highlight these differences, because they show that the division is almost insurmountable.

The moment in which the rebellion of the “second army” erupted was in March 2016, when sergeant Elor Azarya murdered Abdel Fatah al-Sharif in Hebron in full view of a camera operated by a researcher with the human rights group B’Tselem.

Azarya refused to accept that “first army” soldiers receive more support and legitimacy than soldiers of the “second army” like himself. During his trial, his father, Charlie Azarya, said that if his son is convicted, “pilots who drop one-ton bombs, will be charged next.”

Protests in support of Azarya erupted over the differential treatment of “first army” soldiers who kill with impunity while “second army” soldiers like Azarya – Border Police, Mizrahi, religious, from the periphery – must adhere to stricter rules of engagement and obey orders.

Azarya was court-martialed and ended up serving nine months in prison for “manslaughter,” an awkward compromise that resembled neither justice nor the full impunity demanded by his supporters.

Since then, officers started to fear their soldiers. Soldiers started to publish anonymous posts about their intention to disobey orders to use nonlethal force through the rapper Yoav Eliasi’s (“the Shadow”) Facebook account.

Military correspondent for Israel’s Channel 13 Or Heller also explained on television that the officers fear a “second Elor Azarya.”

The cruel actions of the snipers stationed around Gaza during the Great March of Return – in which 266 Palestinians were killed – seemed in clear violation of the rules of engagement (which are secret in Israel), but only once was a sniper disciplined, because the officers feared a second Elor Azarya.

The most hated job for Israeli soldiers is the maintenance of the occupation: standing for long shifts at checkpoints, breaking into homes in the middle of the night, making random arrests, guarding settlers. All these jobs are delegated to the “second army.”

This is how the “second army” rebels – by opening fire against regulations, by switching to live ammunition or just not showing up.

All the large checkpoints have already been privatized.

Exploiting the divisions

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu understands these divisions well. He ordered Gaza to be bombed in early May in part to expose air force hypocrisy.

While pilots refused to attend training exercises (which they consider to be a chore), they didn’t refuse to participate in the killing of human beings (which they consider a hobby).

Thus Netanyahu weakened the protest movement against him, exposing its internal contradictions and unwillingness to question the Israeli settler-colonial hierarchy. At the same time, Netanyahu sated the far-right’s bloodlust and stabilized his coalition against the second army’s rebellion.

Netanyahu’s coalition contains only one “first army” representative, Yoav Galant, the minister of defense. Netanyahu supported Azarya during his trial, thereby undermining military discipline.

The populist zeal and the frustration of the “second army” is the fuel that he used to win the election. Even when in power, Netanyahu’s supporters demonstrate with shirts that say: “I am a second class citizen.”

In an apartheid state, the irony is palpable. But populism is not about truth, it’s about what “feels true.”

The short lived coalition government of Yair Lapid, Naftali Bennett and Benny Gantz dealt with the rebellion of the “second army” by delegating as many of its responsibilities to the Palestinian Authority as possible.

Gantz dedicated his stint as minister of defense to increasing monetary compensation to soldiers, while meeting PA leader Mahmoud Abbas and asking Abbas to keep the West Bank under control on Israel’s behalf.

Abbas has been more than happy to comply, but the PA’s security apparatus is not as eager to play along, and the PA lost control over Jenin and Nablus.

There, Israel deploys the “second army,” with predictable results. The killing of the journalist Shireen Abu Akleh was a brutal murder committed by a soldier, confident in his impunity, not an order from above.

Unable to bring the army under control, it’s not surprising that Lapid and Gantz lost the elections last year. Bennett even retired from politics.

It’s also not surprising that the “first army” is afraid of the populist direction of the far-right government.

Officers initially said that Netanyahu “wants to destroy Israel’s liberal democracy.”

Then they changed it to the claim that the judicial overhaul could leave them more “vulnerable to legal action abroad.”

Now, the tone has changed a third time, and the argument in effect runs like this: We know that we do illegal and immoral things against Palestinians, but we do them out of loyalty to our country. Why should we commit crimes for a country to which we are not loyal anymore?

The pogrom in Huwwara is a preview of how the “second army” operates without support from the first.

Israeli officers warn of an imminent collapse of the Israeli army.

They understand that a raging mob, even a heavily armed one, cannot suppress Palestinian resistance. Only a disciplined army can do this, and this army no longer exists.

Shir Hever is the military embargo coordinator at the BDS National Committee, which coordinates campaigning for boycott, divestment and sanctions against Israel.

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