When killing becomes routine
A situation in which IDF soldiers kill an innocent civilian and feel that nothing happened that merits a report is nothing short of appalling, and the responsibility for it devolves on the Judge Advocate General's Office, which decided from the outset of the intifada that it would no longer investigate most of the acts of killing in the territories.
At the beginning of June, Nabil Jirdath, 48, a clothing merchant and the father of eight, drove from his store in Jenin to his home in the village of Silath al-Harthiya. With him in the car were seven of his family members, including children. Suddenly the car came under light-arms fire from a tank that was stationed on the main road. Jirdath was critically wounded and died a few days later.
It's possible that the soldiers wanted to frighten the occupants of the car, as the driver, for fear of the tank, had turned on to a bypass dirt road. And so the soldiers opened fire at the vehicle from long range. The result was an appallingly unnecessary death, which, as in many other cases, was of no interest to the Israeli public.
However, the lack of interest shown in the event by the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) this time assumed a horrific character: it turned out that the IDF Spokesperson's Office had no knowledge of the incident. Someone is killed but no investigation is made and no record is kept of the event anywhere - as though an animal was the victim. Is it possible that the soldiers in the tank didn't even bother reporting to their superiors that they had killed someone?
Another week went by after the IDF Spokesperson promised to look into the matter, and MK Isaac Herzog (Labor) submitted a motion for agenda in the Knesset about the incident. The defense establishment again stated that it knew nothing about the event. The deputy defense minister asked for a week's extension to clarify the matter.
About a month has gone by since the incident, but no one has any idea why the soldiers killed Nabil Jirdath.
Putting them on trial is of course completely out of the question. But what difference does it make? The death has already sunk into oblivion. Only the family of the deceased, an affluent family that did much trading with Israel and has many friends here, will remain with its agony.
And let's face it: what does it matter whether the soldiers reported the incident or not? Why should they take the trouble to report when they know that, in any case, no one will do anything with the report? A situation in which IDF soldiers kill an innocent civilian and feel that nothing happened that merits a report is nothing short of appalling, and the responsibility for it devolves on the Judge Advocate General's Office, which decided from the very outset of the intifada that it would no longer investigate most of the acts of killing in the territories.
Of the 2,235 Palestinians that have been killed by the IDF, indictments against soldiers have been handed down in only eight cases. No one has yet been convicted.
The same pattern was followed last summer, when the car we were in, the Haaretz car, was shot at in Tul Karm: no senior officer took the trouble to come to the scene of the incident and the soldiers continued with their daily routine as though nothing happened. The occupants of the car were never questioned about he circumstances of the event.
And what does the IDF officer who is responsible for upholding the law in the army have to say about all this?
In an interview to Haaretz last Thursday, the judge advocate general, Major General Menahem Finkelstein, stated that "it is impossible to carry out 2,000 investigations into 2,000 cases of death when, in a large percentage of the cases, we are talking about military activity par excellence." That is an infuriating statement, because at the time Finkelstein's unit decided to stop investigating cases of killing, fewer than 200 Palestinians had been killed.
So we are entitled to ask whether it is an exaggeration to assume that if the Judge Advocate General's Office had decided to investigate - at least to investigate - each case of killing, as was done in the first intifada, the number of those killed might not have reached 2,235. Maybe only half that number would have been killed.
From the moral point of view, Finkelstein's remark - in which he says that the large number of people killed is a major reason for not investigating the deaths - is reprehensible. Just imagine what the reaction would be if the police were to declare that they were no longer going to investigate cases of murder because there had been a steep rise in their incidence.
Doesn't the judge advocate general understand that by his decision he gave sweeping sanction for killing? A soldier who knows that nothing bad will happen to him if he kills someone without justification is a soldier who has a distorted value system. The thought that his commanding officers will not make a fuss about the killing of a Palestinian has moral implications that go very deep and will affect his personality for the rest of his life. Did you kill a Palestinian? That's of no interest to us. That is the message the Judge Advocate General's Office transmitted to the soldiers in the field.
If we can judge by what is happening in the Border Police, where offenders are both investigated and brought to trial, because the investigative body is external (the Justice Ministry's Internal Affairs Department, which investigates alleged wrongdoing by police), it would probably be best to place the investigation of killings by soldiers in the hands of an external body as well, which will not seek solely to accommodate its superiors.
In the course of the intifada the lives of Palestinians have become of no value in the eyes of the soldiers. The killing of innocent passengers, of unarmed passersby and of civilians in their homes has long since ceased to be an anomaly. In addition to the political and security price this exacts, the phenomenon also has implications for the moral character of the IDF. The Judge Advocate General's Office has played a not inconsiderable part in bringing about this situation.
The IDF is undoubtedly very pleased with the JAG: he makes possible the killing of Palestinians not only without the intervention of the High Court and without B'Tselem (the human rights group) - the two bodies that Yitzhak Rabin complained about when he was defense minister during the first intifada - but also without a judge advocate general. That's why it's been a long time since we heard soldiers and officers complain that they "need a lawyer by their side."
"We will not sanction war crimes," the JAG promised self-righteously in the Haaretz interview. Yet how can he possibly know whether war crimes have been perpetrated, and in what number, if he doesn't investigate?