The tragic loss of Barel Hadaria Shmueli ז״ל on Monday was met with public outrage at Israeli officials and senior officers in the IDF, slamming them for neglectfully abandoning soldiers during conflict, and rightfully so. The 21-year-old IDF soldier succumbed to his wounds after being shot through a hole in the wall on the Gaza border by a Palestinian terrorist. Barel’s squad was sent to the border in response to an outbreak of violent Palestinian riots along the wall. According to the testimonies of other soldiers who fought alongside Barel, as tensions increased, requests that were made to senior commanders to retaliate with live fire were repeatedly refused. Until, of course, it was too late. As a former IDF combat soldier I am familiar with the administrative steps that can be expected following an incident like this. Perhaps a commission into the circumstances of the directives given by senior officers who dismissed the calls for weapons authorisation, followed by a quick analysis and debriefing by commanders to their subordinates. I would project no more than a week before matters return to business as usual, before Barel is but a number in the long list of Israel’s existential sacrifices, before we begin to wait for a very similar occurrence to happen again.
No, I don’t mean an event where another soldier dies as an unfortunate and sometimes inevitable consequence of war. I’m talking about training soldiers to use their weapons in the event that their lives may be threatened, but failing to mention that it is not at their discretion to decide when they are in danger of being killed. I’m talking about sending soldiers to battle and instructing them to sit tight and wait for permission to retaliate while being plummeted with rocks, molotovs, or in this case, bullets. While there is a strict shooting protocol that all IDF soldiers are bound to observe, it has proven time and again that it is unsuccessful in protecting soldiers during real time combat. Not because it is difficult to understand, but rather because a soldier’s personal judgement after months of arduous training and practice is apparently inadequate in determining mortal danger.
While eulogizing her son, Barel’s mother cried that the IDF Chief of Staff and the Commander of the Southern Magav Brigade assured her that their intelligence was unaware of the fact that the terrorist who killed her son was smuggling a handgun in his underwear. She cried that the reasoning for her son’s death, according to these officers, was that there was no gun in sight to warrant an armed retaliation. If this could ever be classified as an adequate response to the question of Barel’s lack of protection, it would be under the terms of the shooting protocol prohibiting retaliation unless a gun was sighted. This, however, is not the case. The shooting protocol actually stipulates the protection of oneself from imminent, life threatening danger, while ‘danger’ is not limited to a type of weapon, but to the threat of death by any means. The idea that this young man’s life could have been spared were it not for a ‘technicality’ speaks volumes about the Israeli military’s concern for its own global standing as paramount to the lives of its soldiers.
For most combat soldiers, the efficacy of the IDF’s live shooting protocol was notably disgraced following the events of Elor Azaria’s case in 2016. Speaking as a soldier who was in active service during the case’s proceedings, the soldiers’ shift in attitudes towards the efficacy of the shooting protocol was felt on a national scale. Our scepticism was fuelled by the fear that we could no longer rely on the protection of neither our comrades nor commanders if the occasion were to god-forbid arise. The alarming realisation that being killed by a terrorist is preferable to rotting in a prison cell for protecting oneself or one’s fellow squad members tainted soldiers’ morale. Azaria’s imprisonment was a humiliating and debilitating example to the rest of the military servicemen and women that they were unable to determine for themselves the factors that constitute a life-threatening situation.
Shooting protocol in the IDF remains a widely contested matter, the dispute of which can be accredited to the interference of anti-Israel advocacy groups and international organisations in the executive processes of the Israeli military. The unremitting watch of both domestic and international media corporations that seize any opportunity to discredit Israeli defence practices has continuously undermined the IDF’s strategic capability over the years. The incessant upholding of Israel to double standards against the convictions of the UN Human Rights Council have forced Israeli administrations to be excessively diffident in their policies towards combating Palestinian hostility.
While it can be argued that this is a systemic issue that he inherited, Prime Minister Naftali Bennett pledged to ameliorate the rigidity of the shooting procedures in his political campaign. He vowed that Israeli soldiers have every right to defend themselves against terrorists, that Israel has every right to defend her citizens against the forces that seek her demise. But it was Bennett, an ardent religious, purportedly right wing Zionist, who used the rapidly deteriorating security situation in the Negev and in the surrounding communities of the Gaza Strip as a stepping stone on his way to prime ministership. Votes were rallied from desperate residents living in the areas most susceptible to terrorism and violence from both Hamas and other Bedouin factions, who found comfort in hearing from a politician who was addressing their needs. It was thus no surprise to see the outpour of disappointment at his betrayal of these communities, of most of his right-wing voters, following the discovery that he used the mandates they entrusted in him to establish a coalition with the United Arab List and other fervently left wing parties.
Perhaps the pursuit of power is all it takes to abandon ones ideology, to forget ones own gruelling military experiences way back down the chain of command. Bennett’s detachment from the convolution that is being Israel’s Prime Minister was quite clearly articulated when he called Barel’s father and asked, “where is Yossi hospitalised?” Its one thing to be inexperienced running a country, but the basic level of compassion required as a human being would see that you remember the name of the soldier you are inquiring about – a soldier who was sent, under orders of your subordinates, to meet his fate with his hands figuratively tied behind his back.
Barel’s death acts as a testament to the strategic and systemic failures of a government and a military that has been forced to have more regard for the lives of its enemies than for those of its own soldiers. Barel was not the first, and unfortunately, at this rate, he will not be the last.