By SETH J. FRANTZMAN
By now many people have seen the video of an Israeli soldier who shot a wounded Palestinian named Abed al Fatah a-Sharif in Hebron on March 24. The Palestinian man, along with his friend, had attacked Israeli soldiers and wounded one. The video was filmed by a volunteer for the group B’Tselem. The incident was immediately condemned by the highest levels, with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu saying soldiers must obey the rules of engagement, Defense Minister Bogie Ya’alon saying that soldiers must not “lose control” and the IDF chief of staff Gen. Gadi Eizenkot noted; “This is not not the IDF. These are not the values of the IDF or the IDF culture.”
The IDF, which according to reports had already detained the soldier before video emerged, has lessened the charge he may face from murder to manslaughter and a military court released him to “open detention” on a military base. But the army prosecutor, Sharon Zagagi-Pinhas noted “the soldier claimed several times during the investigation that the terrorist tried to reach for a knife that was ‘within reach’ of him, while the documentation in the video presents a different situation, in which the knife was a significant distance away from the terrorist, who was in serious condition as it is.”
Then something strange happened. Some Israelis began expressing support for the soldier and politicians on the right began issuing statements appearing to excuse the action. It is not true that the soldier was now viewed as “every mother’s son“, the way one article termed it. A poll by Israel’s Channel 2 showed that 57% of respondents didn’t think the soldier should be arrested. About a quarter of respondents, those who also opposed his arrest probably, felt the soldier did the right thing. Does that mean most Israelis support his actions? Not exactly. It means that slightly more than half of Israelis don’t think he should be punished and many find his actions understandable in light of six months of stabbing attacks. Considering that 20% of the citizens of Israel are Arab, who are not likely to sympathize, that means a minority of the Jewish public thinks the shooter should be punished.
Is this a worrying trend, or part of the overall support the army receives as an institution in Israel. The IDF is Israel’s most trusted institution. However the current protests against the detention of the soldier, the political statements and populism, point not to trust in the IDF as an institution, but trust and support for soldiers, as victims of that institution. It is more a support for the common conscript, called up and placed in a dangerous situation, and forced to make difficult choices, that the public rallies to.
In making excuses for these actions, many miss the forest for the trees. Here why:
1) Some in the media want us to concentrate on the perpetrator. He’s a terrorist, part of the “suicidal instincts of Palestinians who have been incited to commit terror by their leaders and media,” writes Jonathan S. Tobin. It’s clear that the rules of engagement allow for a soldier to shoot a Palestinian running at them with a knife. In many instances in the last six months of attacks on Israelis, attackers have been “neutralized” during their attack. But the common refrain that “he’s a terrorist”, doesn’t fit with logic. The soldier shot the man lying on the ground minutes after the attack, not in the heat of it. So let’s say you are one of those people tho think that the focus should be on the perpetrator and his “deserving” to die, or his “suicidal” attempt to kill. So if it’s ok to shoot the terrorist three minutes after, then why not 10 minutes, or five hours. Where do you draw the line? Obviously an individual soldier, or a civilian, cannot become judge, jury and executioner, after the fact.
2) “Palestinians hate Israelis.” One excuse that is presented is related to the first, namely that “he’s a terrorist so he should die.” This kind of statement, like the first, allows for the killing of anyone under the rubric of “he’s a terrorist.” First it begins with “all Palestinians hate” and “Palestinians support terror.” From there the easy next step is to view them all as “terrorists”. Soon the tirgger is loosened, and the public baying for the killing of terrorists has transformed what is supposed to be a professional army into an armed rabble that makes up its own laws. Why would people who ostensibly “support” Israel, want its army to be degraded into a chaotic institution where every soldier decides for him or herself who to kill?
3) “Don’t judge the soldier until the court has ruled, he’s innocent until proven guilty, the video was made by radical leftists.” The theory that posits that the public can make no logical analysis for itself of a video until the “facts” are known deprives the individual of their intelligence. Of course a person can watch a video and judge for themselves what is taking place. When a half dozen people are standing around a wounded man, when other wounded have been taken away, and everyone is relaxed from their behavior, and then one soldier cocks his rifle and shoots at the wounded man, the viewed can draw their own conclusions. Was there a threat, what happened, why didn’t the soldiers standing closer to the wounded man, if there was a threat, reach for their weapons. Why didn’t the shooter shout at them “he’s moving”? The idea that the video itself somehow is part of a conspiracy, leads one to question if there had been no video, would the army still prosecute. The concept should be that justice exits not because of the video but because of alleged wrongdoing. Just because people are supposedly “innocent” until proven guilty, is a cheap way to keep people from making judgement on their own. Were the two Palestinian perpetrators innocent until proven guilty? No. In most narratives they are just guilty. So where is the same logic?
4) “So what, a soldier killed a Palestinian?” There is a refrain that exists that outright supports killing Palestinians. Why do some “pro-Israel” people think this is a good response? From a moral perspective, shooting down people just for being “Palestinian” is wrong. But from their own worldview of being “pro-Israel” why do they want their Israel to be killing people? Don’t they realize that the more Palestinians that are killed in circumstances like that in Hebron, the more the international community views Israel as a pariah state, the more the IDF is viewed as war criminals? The more Palestinians are seen as being victims of “extrajudicial killings.” Why is it some on the extreme fringe of the “pro-Israel” community actually want to support a situation in which Israelis are seen as massacring innocent people? A US Senator has already called for probes into “extrajudicial killings” and so have NGOs and UN members. The more Israel is seen to be killing people, the more it is weakened internationally. So for the sake of zealous dislike of Palestinians and a view that “they deserve to die”, Israel is also sacrificed. Is that really pro-Israel, or are the extreme voices shouting “kill, kill, kill,” like in the film Alice’s Restaurant, actually harming Israel and wishing it the worst.
How did Israel get to this point?
Over the last six months Hebron has been a center of terror attacks on the IDF and also a place where there were numerous accusations of Palestinians accused of attacking, of being “neutralized” too easily without question. In September an 18 year old woman named Hadeel Hashlamoun was shot at the container checkpoint in Hebron. She was carrying a knife, but an investigation found that there was no reason to shoot her. In November a 72-year old woman was shot multiple times after soldiers said she tried to run them over. She missed them and crashed her car into a gas station. She was shot numerous times.
Over the six months of the terror wave the constant media attention to Palestinians being “neutralized” and the killing of even young teenage girls sent a message that attackers were not to be taken alive. This is because of a subconcious and populist view that never again would 1,000 terrorists be released, because in the past murderers like Samir Kuntar who bashed a child to death, were released. Lynchers, murderers, torturers, killers of children, were released. And there was a quiet feeling that this will not happen. Even if the attacker is 13, they will be “neutralized”, no more releases. This was part of an overall culture that was demanding in 2014 a stop to these releases.
“Neutralized” was the sanitary term chosen by media, politicians and security officials, not “shot.” When people are “neutralized”, there is a sense of dehumanization. Perhaps most of them are perpetrators, And so, after 6 months of daily attacks, this soldier shot this perpetrator in the head, and people around didn’t know what to do. The public never asked one question. Did the shooting endanger the lives of the fellow soldiers? How about the question over whether these kinds of shootings cause Palestinians to want to take revenge, and feed the perception that Israel “executes” Palestinians?
Other countries have soldiers who commit crimes, such as those at Abu Ghraib. It’s a healthy society which can also prosecute its soldiers, even in times of war. The Israeli right wing voices and “pro-Israel” voices who don’t see that, reveal that they are actually anti-Israel. From a moral point of view, from a law and order point of view, from a pragmatic point of view, from a military point of view, a soldier who lacks discipline and takes the law into his hands as jury and judge, should be investigated and if need be imprisoned.