IDF chief responds to soldiers’ concerns about lack of air support
IDF Chief of the General Staff Lt. Gen. Herzi Halevi meets with commanders in the Gaza Strip, Dec. 31, 2023. (Photo: IDF)

Halevi sought to tamp down reports that the IAF was withholding air cover from ground troops due to U.S. pressure.

By David Isaac
January 1, 2024

(JNS) — IDF Chief-of-Staff Lt. Gen. Herzi Halevi engaged in damage control with infantry commanders on Sunday, refuting reports that the Israeli Air Force had tightened its rules regarding close air support.

“For every move you make, you will receive the strongest possible fire support,” Halevi promised during a situational assessment meeting in Khirbat Ikhza’a in the Gaza Strip, according to an IDF statement.

Halevi was responding in part to reports that the Israeli army had modified its rules of engagement due to political pressure from the United States.

Halevi suggested that the strict rules were necessary in part to protect ground troops from friendly fire. “The rules of engagement do not tie anyone’s hands, they are there to protect us also from ourselves, and to work correctly so that we will be very effective in hitting the enemy, and very, very controlled [to avoid] hitting ourselves,” he said.

Among those present at the meeting were commander of the Gaza Division, Brig. Gen. Avi Rosenfeld, and commander of the 5th Brigade, Col. Tal Koritzki.

The IDF also denied that there had been any adjustments to the rules governing air cover, telling JNS on Sunday, “No change was made in the aspects of engaging when presented with a direct threat to the security of our forces.”

Fueling accusations that the IAF was holding back close air support was a leaked discussion from a government meeting on Sunday.

A media firestorm ensued after Minister of Settlements and National Missions Orit Strook of the Religious Zionism Party asked a pointed question of Maj. Gen. Eliezer Toledano, head of the Strategy and Third-Circle Directorate (“third circle” refers to Israel’s enemies that don’t share a border with it). 

“Is it true that there are pilots who are refusing to bomb for reasons of conscience, and aren’t giving support to the ground forces?” Strook asked.

Toledano replied, “In my eyes, this is a terrible question. The short answer is that there is no such thing, simply, no. The longer answer is that the air assistance to the ground forces in the war is unprecedented. I am sure that if you ask the commanders in the field, you will get the same answer.”

According to the leaked transcript, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu came to Strook’s defense, telling Toledano, “The answer to the question is correct, [but] regarding your characterization of her question—it is inappropriate for you to tell the minister what you think of her question.”

Strook’s question expressed a distrust that has developed among the country’s political right toward Israel’s Air Force as a result of the political unrest surrounding the government’s judicial reform plan.

During the social upheaval that ensued, IAF members were at the forefront of an unprecedented call by reservists to suspend their IDF service in protest.

The call started with a group of 37 IAF reserve pilots, who announced in early March 2023 that they would skip a day of combat training and by July had snowballed to include 1,000 pilots, (10,000 reservists from other branches also took part).

However, in the wake of Oct. 7 internal social rifts evaporated as the country united to defeat Hamas. There have been no cases of IAF pilots refusing to serve since the war started.

Indeed, Strook’s question was called “delusional” by Education Minister Yoav Kisch, according to the leaked transcript.

In response to JNS’s requests for comment, Strook’s office said, “We do not respond to leaks from closed meetings.”

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