Analysis

Don't Blame Soldiers Fleeing Jerusalem Truck Attack on Hebron Shooter's Verdict

It’s hard to believe that in the seconds after the truck killed four soldiers, their colleagues stopped to think about the legal consequences of shooting the assailant.

Israeli police at the scene of a truck-ramming attack that killed four soldiers in Jerusalem, January 8, 2017.
Mahmoud Illean/AP

Attempts to pin Sunday's ramming attack that killed four soldiers in Jerusalem on a specific diplomatic development is superfluous and misses the point. It’s doubtful that the terrorist, a truck driver who deliberately ran into a group of soldiers, was influenced by the United States' intent to move its embassy to Jerusalem or the promise of a blooming romance between the incoming Trump administration and the Netanyahu government. As long as this remains an isolated incident and not the start of a new wave of attacks (which will only become clear in the coming weeks), the immediate background of the incident doesn’t really matter.

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The attacker was a resident of the Jabal Mukkaber neighborhood in East Jerusalem, and in those parts of the city, there is always a volatile mix of substandard living conditions, nationalist friction with the Israeli authorities and extreme religious hostility. Jerusalem, on both sides of the seam line, is particularly vulnerable because the Palestinians who live there are very familiar with the city and can move about freely in areas where Israelis live. The last grave attack, in which a policeman and a woman were killed in a drive-by shooting, also happened in Jerusalem, near Ammunition Hill.

Compared with the shootings and stabbings of the past year and a half, yesterday’s attacker chose a far more deadly weapon: a truck. Jerusalem has witnessed some bad car-ramming attacks, including ones in the late 2000s where the assailants used tractors. But now – as in Berlin and in Nice – we see that in Jerusalem, too, a truck can also be used as a murderous weapon in an attack that’s hard to stop, often for several minutes.

The video of the attack has been broadcast almost continuously by Israeli media outlets, but it has also shown up on Arabic social networks as combustible material for copycats. The fact that the footage shows a second group of officer cadets, some of them armed, fleeing the scene in a panic increases the Palestinian enthusiasm online while causing the army embarrassment.

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What the video shows is indeed awkward. The Israel Defense Forces spokesman hastened to issue a statement that a preliminary investigation conducted by the commander of the officers’ college, Col. Yaniv Alaluf, showed that “At least two cadets fired at the terrorist from close range.” This fire was in addition to that of a civilian who was guiding a group of soldiers, who said he was the first to shoot the attacker and was alarmed by the soldiers’ slow response.

This is something the army must investigate thoroughly. The video shows only a handful of soldiers going toward the group that was attacked, to either aid the wounded or help bring down the assailant. The rest simply fled the scene.

It’s true that the cadets participating in the tour were from rear units and hadn’t yet gone through combat training. One can assume that among combat soldiers with proper preparation, more would have responded the way the army expects them to. But in the past, such as in the shooting at the Be’er Sheva central bus station a year ago and during the attack at Ammunition Hill, there were also cases of armed soldiers fleeing the scene. At Ammunition Hill, one of them was a combat officer who was subsequently punished by the military.

The immediate response from the right, as if it’s clear that the soldiers hesitated because of Elor Azaria’s manslaughter conviction last week, seems unreasonable. Different people – and different soldiers – have always responded differently to emergency situations. The army expects its soldiers to make contact and neutralize the threat, and is meant to train them accordingly. But it’s hard to believe that in the seconds after the truck hit, anyone who was running away stopped to think about Azaria or about the legal consequences of shooting the attacker.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu came to the site of the attack a few hours after it occurred and the security cabinet convened to discuss a response to it. In reality, it’s doubtful that over time, Israel will change its policies toward the Palestinian Authority or its actions in East Jerusalem. It’s difficult to completely halt lone wolf attacks, especially if the perpetrator has no previous criminal record and isn't even carrying a gun. Stopping terror, which has never been completely successful, always depends on a combination of intelligence work and determined deployment in the field.

The series of pronouncements by politicians after the attack don’t carry much weight. They were apparently aimed at achieving two things: To signal to Israelis that the government is going to do something following the horrible attack in which four young people were killed in front of a security camera, and in the case of the Likud responders, to divert the public’s attention from the most recent corruption allegations against the prime minister.