Friday’s detention hearing for the soldier who on March 24 shot a wounded Palestinian attacker in Hebron was held in a military court in southern Israel. The soldier serves in the Central Command of the Israel Defense Forces. Earlier sessions were held in the command’s court in Jaffa. Apparently it was not only too small to accommodate the soldier’s relatives, his supporters and members of the media, but it was also deemed to be too difficult to manage the hundreds of hot-headed protesters outside. The new venue is on the Castina base, outside of Kiryat Malakhi.
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It’s the same place where several high-profile cases from the first and second intifadas were tried. They include the trial of Taysir Hayb, who served six years for manslaughter for killing Tom Hurndall, a British peace activist, in the Gaza Strip in 2003. An IDF officer identified only as Capt. R. was tried in Castina on charges related to the death of Iman al-Hams, a 13-year-old girl, in the Strip in 2004. He sued Israeli journalist Ilana Dayan for slander, and in 2005 he was acquitted after his lawyers undermined the claims of the prosecution and the findings of the Military Police.
It’s too soon to say how the Hebron soldier’s case will turn out, but even at a detention hearing last Tuesday it was clear that his lawyers will not give the MP investigators an easy ride. It also appears that the very public defense strategy pursued by the defense team and the family’s media advisers is proving successful.
Not only did violent mobs turn out from anti-Arab organization Lehava and La Familia, the fan club of the Beitar Jerusalem soccer team, laying siege to Castina’s main entrance gate for several hours on Friday. Many more civilized folk also view the soldier as their collective son, deserving of their sympathy even if he erred.
Just as there was an outpouring of sympathy for the abducted soldier Gilad Shalit, whose case was of a different nature, the soldier from Hebron is attracting widespread support. The questionable and exceptional decision by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to call the soldier’s father Thursday night — and issue a press release about it — shows that the soldier has become an updated version of Shalit.
An Israel Channel 2 television poll from last week found that public sentiment is clearly in the soldier’s favor. The claim that he shot Abdel Fattah al-Sharif because he feared the assailant might be wearing a “suicide belt” that he could still detonate, has found a receptive audience in Israel. Most respondents didn’t care that none of the perpetrators in the current wave of attacks have used explosives, that the soldier’s commanders and fellow soldiers did not mention such a threat or that the shots fired by the soldier could have endangered the lives of other soldiers at the scene.
After the wave of stabbing attacks by Palestinians began last fall, the head of the IDF Central Command, Maj. Gen. Roni Numa, chief of Central Command, issued a detailed directive for handling such incidents. It said that since it is unlikely for someone who sets out to commit a stabbing to also wear a suicide belt, it’s enough for the commander on the scene to check for explosives before rendering medical care.
That protocol was in fact followed in Hebron. A commanding officer who reported to the scene after the initial incident turned over both of the assailants — one apparently died immediately. He found the knives used in the attack and verified the absence of explosives.
Numa reprimanded officers who were at the scene were for failing to render first aid immediately. The videos also do not show the medics from Judea & Samaria Hatzalah rushing to attend to the Palestinians, at least one of whom was still moving his hand, and appeared to still be alive, until he was shot by the soldier. Two people from the organization, the medic and the person filming the incident, are also heard on one of the videos warning the soldiers that the second terrorist may be booby-trapped.
The IDF suspects that the paramedics’ warnings to the soldiers was meant as a pretext for delaying treatment. This has been a recurring phenomenon during the terror attacks of recent months, and the IDF has addressed the issue with Magen David Adom, as Hatzalah operates with its approval. Last week the army sounded very skeptical of an MDA report claiming the Hatzalah team acted properly in not treating the wounded Palestinians because they had to wait for a sapper to inspect them first. The line of defense that has been taken on the soldier’s behalf with members of the public won’t necessarily work in the courtroom. In the army’s field inquiry of the incident, another soldier and the company commander said immediately after the incident that they heard the soldier who shot the terrorist say: “Anyone who comes to carry out a stabbing needs to die.” This account does not square with the version presented by the defense, and they will need to refute such evidence in court.
In the meantime, the prosecution has retreated from pursuing the allegations of murder that were raised at the first hearing on extending the soldier’s detention. Now the prosecution is asserting that the soldier committed manslaughter. The initial prospect that an indictment for murder would be filed, along with the soldier’s arrest and photographs of him in restraints in court are the main areas of criticism that has been leveled by the right wing and by several retired senior army officers over the IDF’s handling of the case. It appears, however, that some of the opposition comes for other, deeper reasons.
The assault by politicians directed at the IDF, at Chief of Staff Gadi Eisenkot and at the prosecution not only stems from identification with the soldier or a desire to attract public sympathy. It is a direct continuation of the campaign against left-wing organizations such as Breaking the Silence and B’Tselem and their being labeled as informants and moles.
The pressure to scrap the trial is designed to serve a long-term goal: The effort might restrain legal interference in the conduct of the army and its soldiers in combat situations. It also seeks to eliminate the legitimacy of any effort at outside oversight of Israel’s actions in the territories in general.