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Israeli military chief sparks debate with ‘common sense’

Israeli military chief sparks debate with ‘common sense’

JERUSALEM: Lieutenant General Gadi Eisenkot’s mother said he was destined to be a wise man, but some of Israel’s right-wing politicians were not so sure after a recent speech.

The plain-spoken military chief of staff, with his familiar greying buzz cut, said what in other situations may seem obvious, but it touched a nerve in Israel.

“When there’s a 13-year-old girl holding scissors or a knife and there is some distance between her and the soldiers, I don’t want to see a soldier open fire and empty his magazine at a girl like that, even if she is committing a very serious act,” he said.

“Rather he should use the force necessary to fulfil the objective.” Many have described his comments as common sense, but the remarks were only the latest from Eisenkot to stir debate.

The 55-year-old, who recently marked a year as Israel’s top soldier, has won praise from those advocating a moderate approach in the face of calls to crack down more harshly on Palestinians.

But right-wing politicians, including members of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s cabinet, have called such comments inappropriate.

The controversy has come amid violence since October that has killed 181 Palestinians and 28 Israelis.

Most of the Palestinians killed were carrying out gun, knife and car-ramming attacks, according to Israeli authorities.

But Israel has also faced accusations of using excessive force, including during an incident in November when two girls aged 14 and 16 stabbed a man with scissors.

Video footage showed the girls being shot, then a policeman running back towards one of them while she was lying on the ground and opening fire again.

Many believed Eisenkot’s speech was referring to that incident.

For one of his former commanders, such comments reflect the approach of a man he calls “very balanced, never too hasty”.

“He had to explain it in a very simple explanation,” said retired Major General Ilan Biran.

“But the fact that it created a boom, that has to do with politics.”

A quiet boy

Eisenkot grew up in the desert town of Eilat on the Red Sea, the son of Jews who emigrated from Morocco. His father worked in the nearby copper mines.

His mother, a homemaker, said in a 2014 interview with a local website that she had a dream when she was pregnant that signalled he would be a “wise man” — though she would have preferred he become a rabbi.

One of his high school teachers described him as a serious student.

“Really, it was a surprise for me. He was a quiet boy,” Eli Yakov, 63, who taught Eisenkot in the 1970s, said of his rise through the military.

“He became so serious” in recent years, Yakov said, “and everybody said: ‘That’s it, we know he’s going to be something big’.”

His brother told a local newspaper that Eisenkot had intended to join the navy, but changed his mind at the last minute because he was interested in the army’s Golani Brigade, often on the front lines. He would eventually become its commander.

He later served as commander in the occupied West Bank and in northern Israel, before rising to deputy chief of staff.

Eisenkot, who holds a history degree from Tel Aviv University, had a brush with politics in 1999 when he became military secretary to then prime minister Ehud Barak.

The married father of five took over the military’s top job in February 2015.

Like a juggler

Despite recent comments, Eisenkot has at other times not shied away from threatening force.

In 2008, he warned Hezbollah that any strike by it would be met with “enormous destruction” of the Lebanese villages from where it originated.

The Lebanese Shia militia had fought a war with Israel two years earlier, and Eisenkot said in the interview with an Israeli newspaper that Hezbollah should not turn such villages into “military bases”.

In a report on the 2014 Gaza conflict, when Eisenkot was deputy chief of staff, a UN commission of inquiry said both Israel and Palestinian militants may have committed war crimes, and criticised Israel’s “huge firepower” that devastated the Hamas-run Gaza Strip.

For Palestinians, Eisenkot’s recent remarks mean little and are unlikely to change the outlook of one of the most right-wing governments in Israel’s history.

“He said something that’s basic common sense and an ethical responsibility,” said Hanan Ashrawi, a senior figure in the Palestine Liberation Organisation.

“I don’t see why he suddenly became so great — maybe in comparison to the political climate.”

Still, supporters point to a history of what they call a balanced approach by Eisenkot, who did not respond to an interview request.

A letter he reportedly sent to Netanyahu while northern commander discouraging an attack against Iran’s nuclear programme foreshadowed some of his recent comments.

In January, he said that the Iran nuclear accord reached last year held risks, but also opportunities, raising eyebrows because Netanyahu had condemned the deal as a “historic mistake”.

“He’s like a juggler balancing between so many conflicting interests,” said Yossi Melman, security analyst for the Jerusalem Post.

“And still he keeps the balls in the air.”

Published in Dawn, March 8th, 2016

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