Shooting of Wounded Palestinian Is Watershed in Battle Over Israeli Army's Rules of Engagement

The right's defense of an IDF soldier who shot a supine Palestinian is part of a larger campaign to set a new standard, under which anything a soldier does in the struggle against Palestinians is legitimate.

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

The initial unease on the right at the incident of the Israeli soldier who was caught on camera shooting dead a wounded Palestinian militant in Hebron last week quickly dissipated. Now, politicians, media advisors, rightist activists and no less than five lawyers have begun waging a campaign joined the crusade, which was launched by thousands of comments voicing supporting for the soldier on Facebook, Twitter and other social media.

Arguments over the soldier’s action and how the army should respond to it have quickly developed into an assault on the Israel Defense Forces, the chief of staff and the defense minister and an effort to steamroll the IDF into changing its rules of engagement.

A clip taken by a Palestinian volunteer with the B’Tselem NGO on Thursday shows a pretty clear picture. The Palestinian youngster, one of two who stabbed and wounded a soldier minutes earlier, is lying on the ground, his head bleeding. He appears to be in critical condition, although he moves a little every now and then. If he poses any danger, none of those standing around him – officers, soldiers and civilian paramedics - seems aware of it. They are busy with their affairs – tending to an injured soldier and making phone calls.

A soldier, a medic who arrived after the stabbing, suddenly cocks his gun and fires one shot at the Palestinian’s head from short range.

In another video of the incident, published by the Hatzala Judea and Samaria organization, two voices, probably of civilians, are heard before the shooting. One says, “this terrorist is still alive, the dog, [let’s hope] he doesn’t rise on us.” The other says “he probably has an explosive on him. Until a sapper comes, we’re not touching him.”

This is the alternative narrative the shooter and his supporters are using to defend him. The Palestinian, who was still moving, wore a jacket on a warm day. There have recently been cases of stabbers hiding explosives. The soldier’s supporters claim he feared the stabber was hiding an explosive vest and was about to detonate it. So he shot him “to remove the threat.”

The soldier’s family held a news conference saying he had been “lynched.” They accused the army of abandoning him and the defense leadership and media of “killing him without trial.” The soldier himself is facing the same charge – killing without trial.

The soldier and his lawyer entering a military court in Jaffa, March 25, 2016.Credit: Ofer Vaknin

An inquiry ordered by GOC Central Command Roni Numa on Friday found that the soldier had shot the wounded Palestinian six minutes after the two assailants had been shot and immobilized and that he had acted on his own accord, without receiving any order. Numa also ordered the reprimand of three officers who were at the scene, on the grounds that they didn’t begin to administer medical treatment to the two Palestinians, at least one of whom was still alive until the soldier shot him dead.

Like Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon and Chief of Staff Gadi Eisenkot, Numa found no justification for the shooting. All three, who have the accumulated experience of thousands’ of inquiries under their belts, all reached the same conclusion – shooting the stabber, who was lying wounded on the ground and posed no threat, had no justification.

It was carried out in breach of the rules of engagement and contrary to the IDF’s values. The six minutes’ time lapse makes it clear that none of the commanders at the site saw any danger in the situation.

But the right wing is making a huge effort to persuade the public that we didn’t see what was clearly seen in the B’Tselem video. The campaign is reminiscent of the one launched for the officer who bashed a Danish peace activist with his rifle butt a few years ago in the Jordan Valley. There, too, violence was used in front of cameras, contrary to reason and IDF instructions.

An alternative explanation was quickly concocted, to the effect the officer had been attacked by the brutal activists and his finger was broken. He had acted in self-defense. Two days later, the story was that the Dane had broken the officer’s hand.

The IDF didn’t buy the campaign and eventually parted ways with the officer.

Now, similarly, the threat posed by the wounded stabber is being scrutinized. On Friday, the army published a clip showing soldiers from the same detail immobilizing, with exemplary calm and without firing a single shot, a Palestinian girl who waved a knife at them. Rightist sites accused the army of weakness and defeatism, as if the supreme goal was more dead Palestinian youngsters, rather than thwarting terror and calming things down.

The current campaign is linked to the latest attack on human rights organizations. Behind them is a common and clear goal – to set a new standard, under which anything a soldier does in the struggle against Palestinians is legitimate. Investigations and suspensions only get in the army’s way of conducting war. Hence, the rules of engagement must also be mitigated. This will rapidly lead to anarchy and the loss of the IDF’s moral spine, which has already been bent from years of fighting terror carried out from within an occupied civilian population.

Ministers Naftali Bennett and Ofir Akunis defended the soldier over the weekend. Pictures of Ya’alon in SS uniform were posted on the Internet and posters of Eisenkot, wearing a Haman hat, were posted around the IDF headquarters in Tel Aviv over the weekend, with calls for him to resign.

The Hebron shooting is a watershed. Will the army allow the online commenters, even if they happen to be cabinet members, to set the rules of engagement? Since the intifada doesn’t seem to be about to die soon, the way the defense establishment proceeds in this case will have long term repercussions.