When there is a consensus regarding the way a dramatic event unfolded, it is easier to reach a unanimous agreement on its character. Everyone saw the video that earned the generic name “army sniper shoots Palestinian as soldiers cheer,” and the obvious narrative arc was attached: The soldiers are ugly Israelis, rejoicing at the sight of the Palestinian thrown into the air by the force of the shots; they are thrilled by the sharpshooter’s lethal precision.
This is a coherent story that enables a shared experience. The cheering soldiers are what the ultranationalist right calls, in graver circumstances (such as arson attacks on Palestinian families), “stray weeds,” in order to wash its hands of an act that has the power to sully it and to conceal the fact that the entire field is one of wild weeds.
But when one views the video while making an effort to see it for what it is, as close as possible to the events as they happened, with no reference to the universally accepted interpretation, new shades emerge.
Little effort is required to notice the moan in the voice of one of the soldiers when he says, “Someone was hit in the head,” or to hear the heavy, frightened exhalations of the videographer before he shouts, “Wow, what a video. Yes! Son of a bitch,” followed immediately by his jumbled mumbling, as if to himself, “Go, run and get him out of there.” And also the bewilderment when he says, “He flew in the air, with his leg...”
Without reacting to these details – without wondering why the soldier insists on treating the scene unfolding before his eyes like a video clip, the way that we, the viewers, treat it, without wondering whether it is a stratagem of dissociation, a way for the soldier to distance himself emotionally from the situation – it is clear that everyone, left and right, nauseated and rejoicing, is rehashing the same story. That’s not what I saw.
If this is what the soldiers are, then they, like the Hebron shooter Elor Azaria and others who were captured by cameras, are the ugly face of Israel. They, and not our children. Well, excuse me for spoiling the celebratory atmosphere of Independence Day – the petty disagreements over which are the best metaphors for our situation today – but Israel is indeed ugly and these soldiers aren’t the children of Charlie Azaria. They are yours and mine.
Who doesn’t want to be able to sleep well at night, knowing that only terrible, uncivilized families produce vulgar louts? If it’s possible to blame the parents, the neighbors and the teachers, then they can be called “the other Israel.” Well, I have unpleasant news for you: There is no “other Israel.” The family of the soldiers in the video is called Israel the occupier – pleased to meet you – and their upbringing is the evil reality that has gone on day and night for 50 years.
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Do the snipers in the video hate the Arabs whose heads they target? Presumably. Are there other soldiers as well? Certainly. Given the situation, is it possible to behave differently? Of course. Is every soldier a separate moral entity? According to the law, yes, but what kind of model have we given them?
The philosopher John Rawls famously defined civil disobedience as “a public, nonviolent, conscientious yet political act contrary to law usually done with the aim of bringing about a change in law or policies of government. By acting in this way one addresses the sense of justice of the majority of the community.” As long as we continue to obediently accept all the ugly expressions of the occupation and the occupation itself, who are we to scorn these soldiers, and by what moral right?