Terror, Lies, and Videotape in Hebron

Netanyahu and military leaders quickly condemned the shooting of a subdued Palestinian terrorist by an Israeli soldier. They shouldn’t have been surprised that the frightened public came to his defense.

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Israeli soldiers stand near the body of a Palestinian who was shot and killed by a soldier while laying wounded on the ground after a stabbing attack, Hebron, West Bank, March 24, 2016.
Israeli soldiers stand near the body of a Palestinian who was shot and killed by a soldier while laying wounded on the ground after a stabbing attack, Hebron, West Bank, March 24, 2016.Credit: AP

At first, the video of an IDF soldier in Hebron shooting an already-subdued Palestinian terrorist seemed to tell a simple story of a soldier gone rogue. Whether he did so out of ideology, confusion or exhaustion, we don’t know. What we know is this: The Palestinian was lying on the ground when the soldier fired, clearly violating military procedure and justifying his arrest and imprisonment on murder charges. 

If a picture is worth a thousand words, presumably a video should be worth millions more. But in the case of this video, released by the Israeli human rights organization B’Tselem last week, pictures didn’t replace words as much as generate them in endless debates and discussions over the weekend. 

And the controversy swirling around the video and the soldier’s arrest confirms that the incident is anything but straightforward. Instead of waiting for the results of the official investigation, it has become a type of national Rorschach test as to whether one believes that any terror activity by Palestinians –  bombing, shootings, stabbings, car rammings –  merits an on-the-spot death sentence. 

Few were surprised when rightwing politicians and activists embraced that hardline position and harshly criticized the government’s decision to even consider bringing a murder charge against the soldier. But the level and strength of broader public sympathy for the soldier has taken many – including the government – by surprise. 

The first major poll on the issue by television’s Channel 2 found that a significant majority of frustrated, terror-weary Israelis believe the soldier behaved “responsibly.” Only a tiny fraction – 5 percent – said they would describe what he did as “murder.” Moreover, after his actions were publicly denounced by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, the army chief of staff and the defense minister in an effort to blunt civil unrest and international condemnation, two-thirds of those polled said the nation’s leaders were wrong to do so. 

Instead of stoking outrage, the more the video is shown, the stronger the defense of the soldier seems to grow, with thousands signing online petitions and forming Facebook groups in support. On Monday, demonstrations demanding his release and calling him a “hero” were organized. While the authorities and the media are withholding his identity, his supporters are trumpeting his name across social media and on signs at their rallies. In their eyes, he has nothing to be ashamed of.  

Those appalled by this response should remember that this boomerang effect isn’t unprecedented, even in the most politically correct of democracies. 

In 1969, during the Vietnam War, the American public was rocked when shown bloody photographs of the My Lai massacre, displaying hundreds of slaughtered civilians – men, women and children – strewn across a Vietnamese village, killed under orders of the U.S. military. Yet, when all was said and done, after 14 officers were charged in relation to the slaughter, just one was convicted – William Calley. 

Calley became a cause celebre in middle America, garnering political and public support. Five state legislatures passed bills demanding clemency, and thousands of telegrams were sent to the White House asking that he be pardoned. Even those who didn’t approve of the actions in My Lai saw him as a scapegoat for the incompetence of the military – a parallel to what is happening in reaction to the Hebron video. A song was even composed in Calley’s honor – the Battle Hymn of Lt. Calley. Polls showed that nearly 80 percent of Americans were opposed to his conviction and believed that the life sentence he was handed was excessive. Ultimately, public pressure was successful in reducing Calley's sentence so often that he ended up serving only three years, mainly under house arrest, before receiving a full presidential pardon. 

Beyond the military, video has been a method of documenting police malfeasance in America, beginning in 1991, when the Rodney King video shocked the country, broadcasting the brutal beating by Los Angeles police of an African-American suspect stopped after a high-speed chase. Yet, despite the visual evidence splashed across national television, a mainly-white jury acquitted the officers of criminal behavior –  a move that triggered riots in African-American neighborhoods across the city. 

A quarter-century later, smartphones have made such documentation an integral part of the cultural and political conversation around law enforcement and the use of force. The confluence of technology and racial tensions reached a head in 2014 with the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri by police officer Darren Wilson – who was not indicted by a grand jury – and the choking death of Eric Garner in New York by a police officer who also was not indicted. 

While these incidents spurred massive protests and a large and vibrant Black Lives Matter movement, there were many others who insisted that the police action was justified, or at least that decisions made in the line of duty ought to be treated with a degree of leniency and given the benefit of the doubt. 

Now, recent events in Israel prove again that even clear photographic evidence won’t sway a significant portion of a frightened public who insist on believing that their soldiers can be nothing other than heroes standing between them and the dangerous forces that threaten them. They will deeply identify with – and fiercely defend – the man in the uniform, no matter what his behavior may be, and no matter how ugly it looks on film.