Last week a soldier in a Golani Brigade battalion decided to stop a tour in Hebron for lawmakers from the Joint List, although the tour had been arranged in advance, and was taking place at the site in which police had coordinated it. The soldier, who goes by the name Tomer, confronted lawmaker Ahmad Tibi, shouted at him, “Who do you think you are” and pushed him. The Israel Defense Forces spokesman announced that the army is backing Tomer.
Since then, Tomer has become a micro-celebrity in the ranks of the extreme right. He’s had his picture taken with a photograph of Baruch Goldstein (a settler who slaughtered 29 Muslims at the Tomb of the Patriarchs in Hebron in 1994), and received support from Elor Azaria, the soldier who murdered a wounded Palestinian in Hebron in 2016, and in doing so also became a right-wing celebrity.
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The case of Azaria can teach us several things about the state of democracy in Israel. The initial reaction of then-Chief of Staff Gadi Eisenkot and the IDF top brass was to prosecute Azaria on charges of murder, and after a short time – due to the stormy public reaction – the charge was reduced to manslaughter.
For killing a helpless person – before we became accustomed to the practice of “confirming the kill,” we would have called the murder of a hostage a war crime par excellence – Azaria was sentenced to only a year and a half in prison. The public uproar caused the ousting of then-Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon, who favored enforcement of the law. In the end Eisenkot gave in and reduced Azaria’s punishment to 14 months’ imprisonment.
Tomer, it should be stressed, is not Azaria. A confrontation with a lawmaker is not murder. And still, his act is very grave. In the Azaria story, Eiskenkot said that the public has to decide whether the IDF is an army or a gang. Eisenkot understood the matter well: Soldiers are likely to be very dangerous to a democratic regime. They are armed civil servants, and they are an expression of the basic concept of a democratic regime – that only the government has a monopoly on the use of force.
And if this monopoly is broken, we quickly slide into anarchy. And when soldiers take the power given to them by the public into their own hands and use it against that public – yes, that is the meaning of attacking elected officials – and are not punished for that, we plummet into the abyss with frightening speed.
The segments of the public who demand that soldiers not be punished, no matter what they do, are subverting the foundations of the regime. The IDF spokesman, in his declaration of support for Tomer, determined this week that the IDF is a gang. And that happened during the week when we learned that the IDF uses psychological warfare against the Israeli public.
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MK Tibi is an elected official. The fact that he is not popular on the right does not change this basic fact. Imagine the uproar that would ensue in the event that a soldier were to prevent a lawmaker’s freedom of movement – a right anchored in law – had he been a Jewish lawmaker. Remember the uproar that ensued when the police exercised force against Jewish lawmakers during the demonstrations at the prime minister’s residence on Jerusalem’s Balfour Street.
Many in the Jewish community believe that violence against Arab lawmakers is allowed. The police shot at MK Ayman Odeh during the evacuation of the Bedouin village of Umm al-Hiran, and as we recall, they also murdered Bedouin schoolteacher Yakub Abu Al-Kiyan and then tried to cover up the murder. Nobody was prosecuted.
We’ll conclude with Israeli poet Nathan Alterman, 70 years ago:
Who is Tawfik Toubi? A Knesset member,
a Communist, an Arab
who sits in that House by full right.
That’s democracy, not always easy,
but if we don’t understand this part
we haven’t gotten anything at all.