Israelis Shouldn't Be Urged to Take the Law Into Their Own Hands

Instead of increasing civilians' sense of security, the Jerusalem mayor's call to arms sowed panic in the public and put lives at greater risk.

Steve Klein
Steven Klein
An Israeli man buys a gun in a weapon shop near the West Bank Jewish settlement of Givat Zeev, Oct. 11, 2015.
An Israeli man buys a gun in a weapon shop near the West Bank Jewish settlement of Givat Zeev, Oct. 11, 2015.Credit: AP
Steve Klein
Steven Klein

In calling on civilians to carry their licensed weapons last week, Jerusalem's mayor helped sow panic among Israelis rather than increase their sense of security.

While carrying weapons may boost the confidence of the few Israeli civilians who own them, the rest are frightened by the potential for something to go tragically wrong. In addition, inviting John Q. Public to provide backup for the police and army – or to replace them – sends an inaccurate message that Israel's security services cannot adequately protect civilians.

When John Q. Public takes it upon himself to act, he raises the potential for friendly fire. On Saturday, members of a special police force in Jerusalem’s Old City tried to intervene when they saw a Palestinian attacking a police comrade with a knife. Not only did they kill the terrorist, they seriously wounded two police officers in the process. If trained security personnel can go wrong when trying to shoot a knife-wielding assailant, how does that bode for civilians trying to be the hero of the day?

It also invites John Q. Public to take the law into his own hands at a very sensitive and dangerous time, when every wrongly killed Palestinian can turn into a martyr, inspiring more attacks on Jewish Israelis. Police officers and soldiers have shot and killed Palestinian stabbers in many of the recent stabbing attacks, and this should be investigated. Civilians trying to emulate these public heroes are liable to be too easy on the trigger when they see a suspected terrorist attack in progress.

Even after the clear and present danger has passed, John Q. Public is more liable to use gunfire and kill a suspected terrorist or innocent bystander. A 1994 study by B’Tselem asserted that very few of the cases of Israeli civilians killing armed terrorist during the first intifada were clearly cases of self-defense. Rather, the human rights group concluded, in most cases civilians were reacting to Palestinian attacks – including stone throwing. It did not specify, however, if the civilians were trying to apprehend the attackers after the fact or trying to put an end to the attack itself.

While critics may call into question B’Tselem’s bias, the plethora of civilian killings of Palestinians during the first intifada presages a similar phenomenon in reaction to the current wave of violence. The cases of Moshe Levinger and Pinchas Wallerstein in 1988, settlers who shot and killed Palestinians who did not pose a clear and present threat to their lives after stones where thrown at them, illustrate the danger of entrusting Israel’s security to civilians at this sensitive and frightening time.

When civilian mobs seek revenge, we need the professionalism of police officers who can keep their cool.

In Afula, three police officers shielded a Palestinian assailant on Thursday from a mob that wanted to lynch him after he stabbed a soldier. The incident was reminiscent of a terror attack in May 1989, when a police officer freed a Palestinian who had just murdered two Israelis, from a crowd of civilians trying to beat him and shielded the terrorist with his body.

The bottom line is that unprofessional civilians should not be replacing trained security forces in keeping law and order in Israel.

If we take a sober look at the situation, we see that there are already a sufficient number of police officers and soldiers on the ground. While they cannot prevent every attack, police and soldiers – both on-duty and off-duty – have been quick to respond to attacks and apprehend terrorists. Clearly, the cities and towns are saturated with security personnel; they do not need civilian backup.

Where does this idea for arming John Q. Public even come from? After all, it is the job of the police and soldiers to maintain security, not civilians. That’s why we pay taxes to maintain such forces. The idea goes back to the pre-state days, when the British mandatory government was not willing to use its resources in outlying Jewish settlements. That ethos has continued in the territories, where the army can’t protect every individual settler, so many of them arm themselves, as Levinger and Wallerstein did. By encouraging Israeli civilians to bear arms today, Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat is effectively adopting this ethos that stems from the settlement movement.

The job of a democratically elected government is to maintain law and order in a manner by which justice is meted out fairly and equally. It is also responsible for maintaining a sense of proportion when the country undergoes a crisis, when civilian individuals and mobs are liable to seek more radical fixes to the situation.

This is not the time for politicians and security officials to panic and unnecessarily escalate the conflict by encouraging disproportionate use of force and enlisting civilians in the fight against terror. When there’s a terrorist attack, civilians want revenge, but that is not the way of a healthy democracy. Israel already has all the tools it needs, as its ability to manage previous security crises demonstrates.

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.

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