Baffling rules of engagement: ‘IDF soldiers are afraid to use their weapons’

Instructions on when opening fire is allowed are confusing, say soldiers, leading to excessive caution that could be life-threatening.

By Batya Jerenberg, World Israel News

When it’s permitted to open fire is much clearer for soldiers serving in Judea and Samaria than those within the so-called Green Line, leading to hesitation and confusion that could be dangerous, Israel Hayom reported Friday.

The Hebrew paper found that in the case of Judea and Samaria, there are many IDF regulations with specific cases described and reactions discussed in the instructions for when weapons are permitted to be used.

In contrast, it found regulations in pre-1967 Israel are somewhat contradictory and subject to interpretation.

“From the day you enlist, you are given safety instructions and instructions about opening fire,” one infantry soldier told the daily. “Before each guard duty or patrol, they talk about the instructions – and no one really understands when it is possible and when it is forbidden to open fire.

“The instructions are confusing and two-way. Every incident leads to investigations. Soldiers are afraid to use their weapons. They are afraid of investigations by the military prosecutor’s office and the IDF,” the infantryman said.

Another soldier referred to the recent case of the commando who was overwhelmed by two Arabs and had his weapon stolen while on a navigational training exercise. A military inquiry found that he had acted properly and tried to fight them off – once he understood that he was in danger, which was only when they began to attack him physically.

“They tell us that there needs to be means, intent and ability [on the attackers’ part],” he said. “but see the incident of the commando – these weren’t there – and they still endangered the soldier.”

“There is no clear definition of who is the enemy and how to act against him,” he added.

The incident with the commando is on the extreme end but not unique, they say. Palestinians have gleefully posted scenes on social media numerous times when soldiers either retreated or did not react to hostile actions against them that did not involve live weapons.

The concern in some circles is that due to IDF soldiers’ fear of legal reprisal, there has been a steady erosion of the deterrence factor in preventing terrorist attacks, if not war.

In 2018, the year before he was appointed defense minister, Naftali Bennett criticized the way the IDF’s legal department shackles the army’s ability to fight.

“We impose on our warriors legal and conceptual hoops” they have to jump through, he said. “Our warriors are more worried about the military advocate general than about [Hamas leader] Yahya Sinwar in Gaza.”

In a response to the Israel Hayom report, the IDF spokesman’s Office gave what appeared to be a boilerplate answer: “The opening fire regulations are adapted to the operational needs.

“In the event that a soldier is attacked and is in danger of death, he may act by all means, including live shooting, in order to neutralize the danger.”

The IDF website says there are separate Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs) “for the various geographical sectors in which the IDF operates, and each SOP addresses the various scenarios that may occur in each sector respectively.”

It also maintains that “the IDF takes various steps to ensure that the SOPs are well known and well understood by the forces.”