Why Did a Non-combat Soldier Shoot at Palestinians?

Non-combat soldiers who join the fighting forces temporarily, like the one who was suspended after the Nakba Day protests, are a serious liability for the military.

Amos Harel
Amos Harel
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Amos Harel
Amos Harel

The disclosure of the fact that a non-combat soldier attached to the Border Police force fired rubber bullets against regulations during a deadly demonstration in the West Bank village of Beitunia two weeks ago does little to help solve the main question in the investigation of the incident: Who killed the two young Palestinians at the Nakba Day protest and how did it happen?

Even now, the Israel Defense Forces is groping in the dark. Neither those who conduct the operational investigations nor the Military Police's investigation department, can explain how the young men were killed. IDF soldiers, Border Police and the commanders of the two forces deny that live fire was used during the incident. On the other hand, the great distance between the demonstrators and the IDF and Border Police almost totally eliminates the possibility that the two were killed by rubber bullets (which are can be lethal up to only about 20 meters).

Even the Palestinian Authority, despite its declarations, is not hastening to assist in finding out the truth. After two weeks, the Palestinian security forces have yet to hand over to the IDF the bullets removed from the bodies of the two young men during the autopsy in the Ramallah hospital.

And still, the shooting of rubber bullets, for which the soldier was suspended, reveals a few things about the conduct of the army during violent clashes with demonstrators. The soldier was suspended from his job, and a Military Police investigation was opened against him, because the firing of rubber bullets was not part of his assignment during the demonstration. Although he was trained as a combat soldier, his job (the precise nature of which cannot be disclosed due to a military court gag order,) is connected primarily to communications.

The Border Policeman and the other soldiers who fired rubber bullets during the demonstration were authorized to do so; the communications soldier was not. His suspension, which under ordinary circumstances would not have aroused any interest, attracted media attention because it took place in the wake of an incident that was to a great extent documented by security cameras and television cameras. Had it been a matter of soldiers who killed unarmed Palestinians in undocumented incidents — which take place almost on a monthly basis on the West Bank — there probably would have been no news coverage.

But the soldier is not so exceptional. A fact that is not widely discussed is that for quite a few soldiers who participate in dispersing demonstrations it’s a chance to take part in the “action” - firing shots, albeit it with non-lethal ammunition, in the midst of the chaos, and the adrenaline rush of a confrontation. We can reasonably assume that the soldier was seeking an exciting experience, or an escape from boredom, and that the Border Police acceded to his request to allow him to fire rubber bullets at the demonstration.

In recent years, most of the clashes between the IDF and the Border Police on one hand, and Palestinian demonstrators on the other, take place at times and in locations that the two sides have chosen in advance — what the army dubs “focus points of friction.” Although the encounter takes place repeatedly, sometimes on a weekly basis, the commanders do not have total control over the soldiers. There is always a possibility that a soldier will violate the rules of engagement, without his commanders knowing exactly what he is up to during the demonstration.

The potential for damage is exacerbated when the shooter is a soldier attached to a force and is not part of an organic unit. In the IDF there are many such job-holders — drivers, dog handlers, intelligence operatives and others — who wander among the units and join them for a few hours or a few days. This is potentially dangerous because the soldier is not part of the regular chain of command. The operational commander in the field didn’t know him before they were teamed up for the assignment, whereas his commanders are at the base and are unable to supervise him and to make sure that he is following orders.

During the years of the second intifada there were several incidents in which non-combat soldiers who found themselves in the line of fire caused problems for the unit to which they were attached, whether by firing irresponsibly on civilians or by operational mistakes (and even firing inadvertently at other soldiers). This is a weak point which almost invites mishaps, although judging by what the investigation has found until now, the soldier from the communications unit is not connected to the killing of the demonstrators.

A screengrab from the CNN footage.
Palestinian kneels by body of Mohammed Abu Daher, killed in clash with IDF in Beitunia, May 20, 2014.Credit: AP

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