Fallout From Hebron Shooting Threatens to Spill Over Into Army

Army brass fear the Internet storm could seep into the military's daily combat and encourage continued flouting of the rules of engagement.

Israeli soldiers surround the body of one of the two Palestinians who were killed after attacking a soldier in Hebron, March 24, 2016.
AFP

This is not the first time the IDF has experienced concern over fallout of an incident recalling Thursday’s shooting by a soldier of a subdued, wounded Palestinian by a medic in Hebron. Two years ago, against the backdrop of disciplinary action against a Nahal Brigade soldier who was filmed threatening Palestinians in Hebron with his weapon, a protest by soldiers erupted on the Internet, described as the “first digital mutiny.”

At the beginning of the current conflict, about six months ago, senior IDF officers expressed concern over the impact right-wing Internet sites were having on the conduct of soldiers as they attempted to thwart terror attacks. 

The concern was that along with calls by ministers, MKs and rabbis to kill any terrorist who tries to attack Israelis, an alternative moral code of combat proposed by these websites – mainly the use of unchecked force – would seep into the army’s daily conduct, even if such conduct went against written directives. The officers conceded that they were having difficulty dealing with the issue and that they did not intend and could not interfere in the consumption of news by soldiers.

A demonstration in support of the detained soldier outside the court where his hearing was taking place, March 29, 2016.
Ilan Assayag

Meanwhile, those who released the genie from the bottle in leading protests against the army’s treatment of the soldier saw that genie emerge in all its ugliness Tuesday in front of the military court at Kastina in the south – a violent and racist mob outside the compound gates, while within the compound, former and current MKs vied with each other in verbal assaults on the chief of staff and the defense minister.

Among the few hundred protesters outside the gate, particularly visible were the thugs of the extreme right-wing Lehava and members of the Beitar Jerusalem soccer team’s “La Familia.” The sympathy for the shooter and threats not to serve in the reserves (although it is unclear who in that respectable forum is called to serve), brought customs straight from the eastern bleachers of Jerusalem’s Teddy Stadium. They shouted “Kahane lives,” referring to the assassinated leader of the racist Kach movement; shoved; growled at a Channel 2 reporter of Ethiopian origin; and cursed his colleague from Channel 10, already suspected of being a bastion of the left wing.

Those who came to Kastina were the hard core, on whose backs the provocation-loving politicians ride. Education Minister Naftali Bennett, who attacked Ya’alon and the IDF over the soldier, wisely chose to absent himself. MK Avigdor Lieberman came as a show of power together with the A-team of the extreme right: MK Oren Hazan (Likud), former MKs Sharon Gal and Michael Ben-Ari, and former Kach activist Baruch Marzel, who isn’t an MK now but might yet become one.

Avigdor Lieberman outside the Kastina military courthouse, March 29, 2016.
Ilan Assayag

Hazan, who accused the defense minister of failure to deal with the affair, also called on Army Spokesman Brig. Gen. Moti Almoz to “hand over the keys and leave.” As far as we know, that demand did not engender any special panic in the army.

In the hearing itself, the military judge made do with extending the soldier’s detention until Thursday instead of until next week, which the prosecution had requested. It was obvious the prosecution wanted to leave its options open. A murder charge, mentioned in the previous hearing, was not raised this time. The military prosecutor mentioned “all possibilities of manslaughter.” 

At this early stage the soldier’s attorneys also presented alternative defenses. On the one hand, they mentioned their initial defense, that the soldier feared that the terrorist was wearing an explosive vest. On the other, they demanded that the prosecution prove that the terrorist was still alive before the soldier shot him.

Meanwhile, the storm on Facebook shows no signs of abating, with retired military brass participating enthusiastically and sometimes harshly. Maj. Gen. (res.) Danny Biton, who until two years ago was a member of the General Staff, said the army had conducted an “amateur investigation intended to protect the commanders and throw the blame on the soldier. For shame.” Brig. Gen. (res.) Shmuel Zakai, former commander of the Gaza Division and Golani Brigade chief in the second intifada, said “the attitude toward the soldier is shameful, tainted with hypocrisy and mainly a lack of professionalism.”

In contrast, Col. (res.) Yuval Bazak, Zakai’s deputy in Golani and then head of the Samaria Brigade at the time, wrote: “The soldier exceeded the norms. A clear and unambiguous statement by his commanders is not evading responsibility. On the contrary, it expresses their professional and moral obligation to IDF soldiers and Israeli society.”

MK Ofer Shelah (Yesh Atid) wrote Tuesday: “This is the time of the commanders. They, and only they, must face their subordinates in the various units and convey a clear message: Morality in combat is the basis of our strength and if we become like our enemies – murderers, low, justifying every action with any excuse – we will be no stronger than they are.”