Retired General Yair Golan spent a significant part of his military career serving in the occupied West Bank, protecting Jewish settlements. Today, he is one of their most vocal critics.
Golan, a former deputy military chief, is now a lawmaker in the accommodating Meretz party, where he has repeatedly spoken out against settler violence against Palestinians.
His comments, underscored by his recent description of violent settlers as “subhuman”, have rattled Israel’s delicate coalition government, and his opponents have called him a radical.
He joins a group of former security personnel who, after refraining from speaking out while in uniform and in positions of influence, have retired to sound the alarm bells over Israeli military rule of the Palestinians, which has lasted for five decades.
“You can’t have a free and democratic state as long as we control people who don’t want to be controlled by us,” Golan told The Associated Press in an interview at his Knesset office this week. “What kind of democracy are we building here in the long term?
Golan has emerged as a rare critical voice in a society where the occupation is largely an accepted fact and where settlers have managed to convey their narrative through their proximity to the levers of power. Most members of the Israeli parliament belong to the pro-settlement right.
Golan, 59, has had a long military career, having been wounded in combat in Lebanon and serving in key positions as head of the country’s northern command and as commander of the West Bank, among others.
Along the way, he earned a reputation as a maverick for decisions that sometimes landed him in hot water. At one point, he made an unauthorized deal to evict some settlers from the West Bank city of Hebron. He was reprimanded and a promotion delayed after allowing the use of Palestinian noncombatants as human shields during arrest raids, a tactic banned by the country’s Supreme Court.
At the same time, he has been credited with allowing thousands of Syrians wounded in their country’s civil war to enter Israel for medical treatment.
As deputy military leader, he was removed from the top job after comparing what he saw as fascistic tendencies in modern Israel to Nazi Germany. He thinks the speech cost him the job.
A few years after his retirement, he was elected to parliament and eventually joined Meretz, a party that supports the creation of a Palestinian state and is part of the current coalition led by Prime Minister Naftali Bennett.
Meretz was one of the few parties to make ending the Israeli occupation a top priority. But since joining the coalition, which has agreed to focus on less divisive issues to maintain its stability, most of its members have appeared to tone down their criticisms.
Golan did not. Earlier this month he caused a firestorm when he attacked settlers who vandalized graves in the Palestinian village of Burqa in the West Bank.
“They are not people, they are subhuman,” Golan told the Knesset Channel. “They must not receive any support.”
His remarks angered Bennett, a former settler leader, and drew criticism from other coalition members.
Golan acknowledged his choice of words was wrong, but said he stuck to the spirit of his remarks.
“Is the problem the expression I used or is the problem these same people who go up to Burqa, smash graves, damage property and assault innocent Palestinians?” he said.
Such statements have made him a poster child for what far-right nationalists describe as dangerous forces in the coalition challenging Israel’s role in the West Bank. Palestinians seek the area, captured by Israel in 1967, as the heart of a future state.
Some members of Israel’s accommodating left have also been reluctant to embrace Golan, who continues to defend the military’s actions in the West Bank.
Golan has always viewed his duty in the territory primarily as fighting Palestinian militants, and he continues to believe that most settlers are law-abiding citizens. The international community overwhelmingly views all settlements as illegal or illegitimate, and Palestinians and many left-leaning Israelis see the military as the enforcer of an unjust occupation.
Breaking the Silence, a whistleblower group for former Israeli soldiers who oppose policies in the West Bank, has called for action, not just words, against settler violence.
“Yair Golan knows very well what settler violence looks like and what our violent control over the Palestinian people looks like. That’s why his reviews are valuable, but they’re not enough,” the band said in a statement.
Golan said he still sees Israeli control over the Palestinian territories as temporary. He said separating from the Palestinians is the only way to maintain Israel as a democratic state with a Jewish majority.
In 2006, Golan ordered the violent evacuation of the West Bank settlement of Amona, which was built on private Palestinian land.
“I cannot accept the idea that a Jew who has Jewish values supports the theft of someone else’s land,” he said.
In recent months, as violence between settlers and Palestinians in the West Bank has escalated, videos have emerged of soldiers standing there as settlers rampaged. Golan said he would never allow such a thing under his command.
“These people do not accept the essence of Israel and only abide by the law when it suits them,” he said.
His comments about the settlers are not the first to anger the establishment. In a 2016 speech on Israel’s Holocaust Memorial Day, Golan, then deputy military chief, said he was witnessing “sickening processes” in Israeli society that reminded him of the fascism of Israel. Nazi-era Germany.
He said the remarks were prompted by the fatal shooting of a Palestinian attacker overpowered by a soldier. The soldier has been embraced by nationalist politicians, including Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Golan said the shooting was nothing short of an execution.
Next to his desk, Golan keeps a photo of Netanyahu arriving for his corruption trial at a Jerusalem courthouse, surrounded by his Likud party supporters as he fumes at police and prosecutors.
Golan said the image is a reminder of what he is fighting against – and what he is fighting for.
“I served the country in uniform for so many years, I really gave my life to it,” Golan said. Pointing to the photo, he said, “I didn’t put my life on the line countless times for these people.”