The Real Rules of Engagement in the West Bank

Every soldier knows the protocol for opening fire, but the more powerful principle is that the enemy must be subdued.

Four unarmed Palestinians were killed last week. A fifth was seriously injured this week and it is doubtful that he will get his old life back. All of them were between the ages of 16 and 21. All were killed near the security fence. As far as is known, none of them posed an immediate danger to the lives of the soldiers who fired the shots. Of course, the Israel Defense Forces spokesperson will provide an explanation and an investigation will be launched, but the soldiers on the ground already know the truth. It involves soldiers who are quick with the trigger.

Anyone who has served in the territories knows well the official policy on how to stop a suspect. Have you identified a suspicious figure? You're supposed to yell "Stop" and then in the following order: "Stop and identify yourself" and "Stop or I'll shoot" (in Hebrew and Arabic). You, the solider, are then to shoot in the air and only after that to aim at the suspect's legs and fire. Finally, and only if the suspect poses a risk to human life, are you allowed to shoot with the intent to kill.

In practice, it is clear to many people that this is just protocol. As a soldier and commander of a paratroop brigade from 2004 to 2007, I participated in dozens of operations, and after reading hundreds of eyewitness accounts that we have collected over the years at our organization, Breaking the Silence, the real, flexible rules of engagement have become apparent to me, allowing opening fire on unarmed civilians.  More seriously, sometimes the fire is designed from the beginning to "create friction" with the Palestinian population.

I recall how in the course of my military service, we stopped talking about Palestinians as innocents and started speaking of "uninvolved population," implying that no Palestinian is innocent. Palestinians are at best "not involved in violence" at the moment. As soldiers, we preferred to relate to every Palestinian as a threat. In effect, there is no distinction between a Palestinian who fires at us and a Palestinian who throws a rock at us, a stone thrower and a demonstrator or a demonstrator and someone who simply does not obey our orders or gets insolent. All of them are attempting to undermine our control and at the end of the day, everyone is an enemy. And if every Palestinian is an enemy, then every Palestinian is also a target. And there is nothing he can do to stop being a target in our view.

This assumption explains why over the past decade, orders have been given to open fire on civilians and rescue crews. There is no unit or area in the territories where such incidents have not occurred. And there is no soldier who has testified before us that is not familiar with such a reality. The orders that I received as a soldier and that soldiers continue to receive are: "Demonstrate a presence" at all times and make the Palestinians clearly conscious of the IDF’s presence and control in the territories.

In this way, the army systematically harms all the Palestinians and attempts to create a compliant society that can be easily controlled. When any Palestinian, without any connection to what he is doing, is the enemy who must be fought, then even a Palestinian demonstrating for equality and independence is as frightening as an armed Palestinian, if not more so. And that's because unarmed resistance to the occupation poses a challenge to the security concept to which we have become accustomed.

But history teaches it is not possible to wipe out popular resistance. You need only look around at the neighboring Arab states to understand this. The blatant absence of the occupation as an election campaign issue does not make it disappear, and it can be expected to come back knocking on our door. The policy on rules of engagement that is practiced in the territories does not enhance the security of Israel's citizens or even the security of IDF soldiers in the territories. It does just one thing. It reinforces the occupation.

Avner Gvaryahu is a social worker and member of the organization Breaking the Silence.

Reuters