In April 1984, four Palestinians armed with knives hijacked Bus 300 as it made its way from Tel Aviv to Ashkelon. Two of them were killed during the rescue operation conducted by the Israel Defense Forces’ elite Sayeret Matkal unit. The two others were illegally put to death immediately after the operation had ended. When photographer Alex Levac and the Hadashot newspaper revealed what had happened, the country was in an uproar. There were investigation committees, senior Shin Bet security service officials were dismissed and the entire government was shaken.
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After a turbulent process that lasted two-and-a-half years, the pressure from the media and the public did its job. New norms were established that changed the face of the Shin Bet and redefined the relationships between security, morality and the law.
In March 2016, two Palestinian terrorists armed with knives tried to murder Jews in Hebron. One of them was killed during the attack, while the other was seriously wounded and illegally put to death immediately after the operation had ended. When the video released by B’Tselem revealed what had happened, the country was in an uproar.
But this time the uproar was very different. There was a total role reversal. The security establishment tried to maintain the image of the State of Israel, while the pressure from the media and the public supported the brutality. While the defense minister, the chief of staff and the IDF acted in a cultured and upright fashion, the Facebook society demanded that they not conduct a fair and orderly legal procedure. With a deafening roar, the masses applauded cruelty.
In many ways the Bus 300 case was a far more serious and complicated affair than what happened in Tel Rumeida. But the similarities between the cases and the polar opposite response to them cast a revealing and cruel light on the changes we’ve undergone in the past few decades. They indicate what is happening to us. Where we were then and where we are now. What we were and what we have become. And where we are going.
The most serious recent finding regarding the Israeli state of resilience is the survey conducted by Mano Geva and Mina Tzemach for Channel 2 news, which showed that 66 percent of Israelis believed that the conduct of the soldier who shot the terrorist dead was natural or responsible. That was also what people on the Web thought, with 82 percent supporting the soldier who shot in cold blood, compared to 18 percent who disapproved. The same Israeli society that in the past had demanded that its leaders investigate thoroughly, clean out the stables and preserve our purity of arms, is now demanding that its leaders look away, do nothing and ignore any ethical imperative.
The combination of moral depravity (manifest in the occupation) and nationalist extremism (nourished also by Palestinian violence) with the new political culture (essentially the shattering of all political culture) has led to a ghastly outcome. It has made a populist, aggressive and violent spirit – which knows no norms, rules or limits – the center of our lives.
Within this bubbling caldron, two people stood out. One was former chief of staff Moshe Ya’alon, the other the current chief of staff, Gadi Eisenkot. These two honest and brave officers marched this week with their chests bared to the firing squads of an inflamed and inciting public. In a total turnabout, it was the defense minster, the chief of staff and the army itself that proved to be the keepers of Israeli democracy and morality.
But nothing lasts forever. If this avalanche is not stopped soon, it is liable to bury the military as well as the weakened judiciary, which still preserves the Israeli spirit. The question is not what this or that soldier will be charged with. The question is whether the IDF is an army or a militia, and if Israel is a country where the rule of law prevails.
After 68 years in which the Jewish state succeeded in sustaining itself (under tough conditions) as a liberal democracy, it is liable to be absorbed into the rest of the Middle East and become an inseparable part of it.