Commentary

Hebron Killing Raises Questions about IDF's Values

Middle East In Focus

Middle East Policy Council

Last week’s apparent extrajudicial execution of an injured Palestinian has ignited a firestorm of criticism aimed at the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) and the Israeli government. Video released by Israeli human rights organization B'tselem shows the Palestinian, incapaciptated after attacking an Israeli soldier, being shot in the head. The IDF has been accused of creating the toxic environment which gives rise to and facilitates such tragic incidents. This episode has created a rift within Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu’s cabinet, and some of the country’s main dailies are decrying the IDF’s lax operating procedures. But the perpetrator, who now stands accused of murder, has also received some support from many of the country’s politicians, media outlets, and former soldiers, all of who caution against reaching a premature verdict on his guilt.

News of the killing broke after the Israeli human rights organization B’tselem posted a video of an IDF soldier executing a Palestinian while “lying injured on ground after the latter stabbed a soldier in Hebron…. Extrajudicial street killings are the direct consequence of inflammatory remarks made by Israeli ministers and officials, augmented by the general public atmosphere of dehumanization. Some top officials have commented, here and there, on the importance of abiding by the law and refraining from use of excessive force. This includes a recent public statement made by the chief of staff and comments included in a formal letter by the minister of defense to B’Tselem in response to a query. However, the law enforcement authorities are by and large turning a blind eye to repeated grave suspicions of extrajudicial killing by the security forces, and these backed in the field by commanders. The message to the Israeli public is undeniable: attempting to injure a civilian or a soldier is a death sentence.”

In a recent report on the story, the Times of Israel points out that the IDF’s own investigation shows that the soldier’s response was unjustified and perhaps premeditated: “Facing a firestorm of criticism from far-right politicians, the IDF released new details over the weekend about the investigation into the shooting death of a Palestinian stabber in Hebron on Thursday....Among the army’s findings, the soldier allegedly said the surviving Palestinian stabber should be killed before he shot him, and told his commanders afterward that the assailant had deserved to die....According to a murder indictment filed Friday by military prosecutors in the Jaffa Military Court, the wounded assailant was not a threat to troops when he was killed.”

The Palestinian daily Maan News, reports that, controversy aside, the IDF continued with further raids in the home of the Palestinian killed by the Israeli soldier, detaining others in the process: “Israeli forces targeted the family of Abd al-Fattah Yusri al-Sharif and detained two Palestinians during predawn raids Sunday in the occupied West Bank district of Hebron, locals said.ocal sources told Ma’an that Israeli forces raided the village of Jabal Abu Rumman and stormed the home of Khalid Yusri al-Sharif, 25, the brother of Abd al-Fattah al-Sharif, who was killed by an Israeli soldier earlier this week in what has been widely condemned as a brutal execution. Khalid was detained by the Israeli military during the raid. The forces also detained Adeeb Shafiq al-Qawasmi, 20, after raiding his house in Hebron, locals said, adding that forces raided a meeting hall for the al-Tamimi family.”

The tragic incident, however, has been a cause of political back and forth with Netanyahu’s cabinet, with one of the cabinet ministers accusing the prime ministers of not standing by the Israeli soldier: “In a stormy cabinet session Sunday, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu angrily defended the army’s investigation into an alleged murder by an IDF soldier who shot and killed a wounded Palestinian assailant in Hebron on Thursday, even as he faced fierce criticism from Education Minister Naftali Bennett over the case....During Sunday’s closed-door cabinet meeting, minutes after delivering his statement, Netanyahu faced angry criticism from his right flank, according to real-time leaks....Earlier Sunday, Bennett accused ‘senior politicians’ of ‘dancing to the tune of B’Tselem,’ the left-wing rights group that publicized one of the videos of the incident.”

The United Nations, along with Israeli Arab politicians, issued strong condemnations of the killing: “Special Coordinator for the Middle East Peace Process Nickolay Mladenov said he strongly condemned the apparent "extrajudicial execution" of the Palestinian, who was shot in the head at point-blank range despite having already been shot to the ground, where he lay wounded for several minutes, after allegedly stabbing an Israeli soldier....Palestinian member of Knesset Ayman Odeh, who has been a vocal opponent of past incitement, said: "Israel has become a place where public executions are carried out with the cheers of the crowd, the price of security and moral deterioration is being paid by both peoples." The MK called for Netanyahu to be tried with the soldier responsible for Thursday's execution, alongside other Israeli officials responsible for incitement against Palestinians.”

Those who are looking at whom to hold responsible for the Hebron killing, have for the most part identified the Israeli government and Israeli politicians and religious leaders as the main creators of the current hostility. It is not surprising then that Dan Cohen, in an op-ed for the Palestine Chronicle, accuses the Israeli government of double talk: “Elor Azraya, the soldier who summarily executed Abed al-Fattah Yusri al-Sharif as he lay on the street immobile and unarmed yesterday, is suspected of murder. In his defense, his lawyer Eyal Beserglick said Azraya ‘acted in accordance with the rules of engagement as suggested by his superiors.’ He’s right. It’s unclear which superiors the lawyer is referring to, but it could be any number of figures in the political and military echelon who have commanded Israeli soldiers to shoot Palestinians deemed attackers dead on-the-spot....Since the graphic video released by the Israeli human rights group B’Tselem went viral, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon distanced themselves from the killing, however stopping short of condemning the killer. But just a few months ago, they were inciting soldiers to kill and guaranteed them full legal backing.”

Similarly, Jerusalem Post’s Jeff Barak notes that the incident was not unforeseeable and unfortunately not a one-off event: “One would have to be both deaf and blind not have noticed an atmosphere in Israel in which the killing of Palestinian terrorists, after they have been subdued, is regarded with a shrug of the shoulders....The noted anti-terrorism expert Sephardi Chief Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef told his followers in weekly Torah lesson: ‘If a terrorist is advancing with a knife, it’s a mitzva to kill him.’...Last October, Rabbi Shmuel Eliyahu, municipal chief rabbi of Safed, called for terrorist attackers to be killed at the scene of the attack....This government thrives on the creation of external enemies in order to unify the country, because it has no vision to offer of a better future.... Our current government, however, prefers a permanent state of apocalypse now, and in such a state, no one has the right to be surprised when incidents such as those in Hebron happen.”

Haaretz’s editorial calls out some of the leaders it holds responsible for the rhetoric and the actions permeating the Israeli society and the IDF: “the abominable act was formed in the womb of a putrid atmosphere, awash with demagoguery and encouragement to murder, which is fostered by politicians like Benett and Yisrael Katz and rabbis like Yitzhak Yosef. They bear a heavy load of responsibility and blame, because to a large extent the soldier was obeying the spirit of the masses, which was agitated by these knights of gangland morality....The Palestinian’s murder is the alarming proof, although not the only or first one, that the IDF’s values, which have a considerable effect on the state’s values, are in urgent need of thorough revamping. Most importantly, they must not remain in the hands of blood peddlers.”

The regional press, including a recent editorial by the National, has also been very critical of the IDF’s actions, arguing that the incident undermines the IDF’s claims of being the most moral military in the world: “Video footage of an Israeli army medic shooting a wounded Palestinian assailant in the head as he lay subdued on the ground is viscerally disturbing but hardly surprising....Growing sectors of mainstream Israeli society find nothing wrong with executing an alleged Palestinian assailant even though he has been subdued. According to a poll by the Israeli Democracy Institute, published last November, 53 per cent of Israelis supported the killing of alleged Palestinians attackers on the spot, even when they no longer posed a threat. The direction of travel in the Israeli consciousness is clear: no amount of violence is too much, and local human rights groups that put a mirror up to Israeli society are little more than traitors. The violence needed to maintain the occupation has created the conditions that justify the use of violence across the society and even outside of judicial boundaries.

Meanwhile, the Jerusalem Post’s editorial cautions against jumping to conclusions and finding the soldier guilty in the court of public opinion: “Ya’alon and Eisenkot are right to insist on maintaining strict rules of engagement. Soldiers must adhere to the highest moral standards when using lethal force....Strict rules of engagement also foster discipline. A trigger-happy soldier is dangerous not just to the enemy but to his comrades....Finally, maintaining high moral standards in the IDF helps Israel in the battle for world opinion....At the same time... [a] soldier who selflessly endangers his own life to protect the citizens of Israel deserves the benefit of the doubt, at least until a military court is given the opportunity to hear all sides of the story. The soldier who shot the terrorist is bearing the brunt of the blame and the indignation. But only a thorough investigation can reveal if he, alone, acted against regulations, or if his commanders and colleagues contributed to the outcome through their own action or inaction. Before we throw the book at one soldier and pass judgment, let us allow the investigation to be completed and the facts to be established.”

Finally, there are also those, like Arutz Sheva’s Paula Stern, who having experienced firsthand the dangers and uncertainty associated with events like the ones under consideration, urge for more patience and understanding: “’m very frustrated with what’s been happening in our country over the past few months. Israeli army troops have been dealing for months with the dilemma of whether to neutralize terrorists or make sure that they are dead, and each time the same commentators on the various television channels debate about ‘the kind of society we have become. ’As I see it, the incident that took place on Saturday is the worst it’s ever been. A soldier shoots a terrorist and makes sure that he is dead, and all the media outlets post ‘atrocity photos’ of the ‘execution,’ as if the soldier had executed some innocent passerby who had done nothing....Keep telling me about how our army is humane. But before you talk about the rules of engagement, remember that it’s because of those rules that Ori is gone and I’m severely wounded and suffering from PTSD.”


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