Why Israel's Unwritten 'Shoot to Kill' Policy Is So Dangerous

Since September this year, death has been the fate of most knife-wielding Palestinians. Is this the result of 'excessive force', and what are the consequences for Israel itself?

Habtom Zarhum, the Eritrean bystander killed in Be'er Sheva in October 2015
(Courtesy)

Habtom Zarhum paid the ultimate price for Israeli public officials' failure to do their job during this latest wave of terror and violence. Zarhum is the 29-year-old Eritrean who was “accidently” shot by a security guard and then beaten into a pulp by bystanders at the Be’er Sheva central bus station on Sunday night. All he wanted to do was to go home after extending his work permit.

His death is the result of the Israeli government sowing fear and encouraging vigilantism – rather than level-headedly instructing the public to let the security services do their job – as well as fostering xenophobic hostility toward asylum seekers and migrants.

Zarhum's death is also linked to the shooting and killing of 19 knife-wielding terrorists since early October. As disturbing as these attacks have been – and everyone wants to see terrorists stopped before they can harm anyone – the trend of shooting people who have stabbed others to death should concern us because of what it says about our leaders’ attitudes, as well as its ramifications for Israeli society in general and innocent bystanders in particular.

Until last year, security services somehow knew how to apprehend stabbers without killing them. In the last two decades knifings in public places were rare, so there were few occasions in which the security forces acted.  But, in all seven documented cases between November 1993 and November 2014, the terrorist was apprehended rather than killed, according to one comprehensive survey.

That trend continued in early 2015, when one knife-wielding terrorist was shot in the leg and apprehended, another was tackled by Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat and a third was wrestled to the ground by the soldier he had attacked.

Since September, however, death has been the fate of most knife-wielding Palestinians. Our leaders have, in part, set the stage. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu declared his “zero tolerance for terror” last month. Interior Minister Gilad Erdan declared that “every terrorist should know that he will not survive the attack he is about to commit.” Jerusalem police chief Moshe Edri said, “Anyone who stabs Jews or hurts innocent people is due to be killed.” Yesh Atid’s Yair Lapid said, “You have to shoot to kill anyone who pulls out a knife or screwdriver.” And Nir Barkat called on Israeli civilians to carry their guns.

No one at the top echelons is questioning this unwritten shoot to kill policy or the dangers of vigilantism.

When the U.S. State Department dared to say that Israel might be using excessive force, Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon knew exactly what the Americans were getting at when he dismissed it by saying: “If someone wields a knife and they kill him, is that excessive force? What are we talking about?”

Yes, Moshe, that’s what we are talking about.

Why should we care?

First of all, Israel is a democracy, which should mete out justice fairly across society. The police are not jury, judge and executioner but rather personnel trained to apprehend criminals so they me be brought to justice. Videos of Fadi Alloun in Jerusalem and of Hadeel al-Haslamun in Hebron, who were shot and killed, and of Basaraa Zidan Tawfik Abed, who was seriously wounded, raise questions about whether or not it was necessary to use lethal force. Yet, Israel has opened no investigations. In contrast, after police shot and killed a Jew in Ashkelon on Saturday night, the Justice Ministry immediately opened an inquiry, as it has regarding Haftom Zarhum’s death.

Second, encouraging vigilantism leads to tragic consequences, as Zarhum’s death attests.

Third, having a lax shoot-to-kill policy is liable to spill over to other areas of law enforcement, first and foremost in the territories but probably also in the way Arab-Israeli citizens are treated when they protest violently, leading to more gratuitous deaths.

Fourth, the act of killing necessarily has psychological consequences for those carrying out the job. PTSD may end up haunting some of these security officers or civilians for a very long time.

Fifth, capturing these mostly teenaged attackers with knives could provide valuable information about motivation and modus operandi. Intelligence is always crucial to preventing future attacks, but Israel keeps losing that intelligence with every attacker that is killed rather than captured.

Sixth, not only does such behavior not discourage others from attacking: The take-no-prisoner attitude could inadvertently spur future terrorists to continue attacking to the death, since surrendering or fleeing end in the same result.

Finally, Israel’s attempt to deter terrorists by killing those with knives is an invitation to escalation. If you’re going to die anyway, why suffice with a knife when a gun can do more damage?

Israel essentially should put an end to this behavior and discourage vigilantism for the sake of its own soul as well as to spare innocent lives.

Unfortunately, the government is gripped by fear and xenophobia. We the people cannot expect the government to question its path as it continues to seek ever-increasing force to suppress Palestinian violence. The people must demand accountability.

Steven Klein is an editor at Haaretz and an adjunct professor at Tel Aviv University's International Program in Conflict Resolution and Mediation. Follow him @stevekhaaretz.