29 March '16..
Call it a modern-day Rashomon story set in the Middle East. Two Palestinians attacked a group of soldiers in the city of Hebron where tensions are always on edge. The Arabs stab and wound one soldier, but are themselves shot in the attempt. Then, several minutes after one of the assailants is wounded and lying motionless on the ground, an Israeli soldier allegedly said the man should be killed, cocked his rifle and fired a bullet into his head. This incident, which was filmed by the left-wing B’Tselem group that monitors army actions, provoked three different reactions.
The Israeli army judged the action to be an act of murder and charged the soldier with the crime, which is condemned by both Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon. They say killing a defenseless person, even one who was apprehended committing a violent crime, contravenes the ethics of both the army and Israeli society and must be punished if proved in court.
But much of the Israeli public, including some members of the Knesset, think the army is wrongly judging the soldier and believe his claim that he thought the wounded Palestinian was still a danger and might have been wearing a suicide bomb vest. They say the government and the army are judging a soldier that was in a life and death situation too harshly. They think that when an act of terrorism has occurred, soldiers must be given full latitude to defend themselves and their comrades against a deadly threat.
Lastly, Palestinians are claiming that the death of the stabber is a typical example of extrajudicial executions of Palestinians who are guilty of nothing more than protest or acts of justified resistance. They say the killer will never get justice and that, even if he is tried and convicted of something, it’s just the exception that proves the rule in which Israelis get away with murder when it comes to dealing with oppressed Palestinians.
Who is right? The impulse from most people in such a complicated situation may be to revert to the classic Akira Kurosawa film and to believe there is some truth in all of the narratives. The death of the Palestinian may feed the narrative of Israeli misdeeds and insensitivity to the plight of Arabs. But if taken in context, the truth that is to be culled from these varying reactions actually tells us a great deal about both sides of the conflict. There is a reason why people facing terrorist attacks are ready to believe in the possibility of a ticking bomb, even when it concerns a seemingly subdued suspect, during the course of such a confrontation. But even if the soldier’s actions are judged to have been wrong, far from showing the Israelis to have lost their moral compass, the willingness of the army and the government to prosecute shows that the nation hasn’t lost its soul in the West Bank as its critics assert.
Let’s start any examination of this story by admitting that, even if you view the B’Tselem video, you can’t really know everything that happened or what was in the mind of the soldier who fired the fatal shot. The reason why so many Israelis instinctively back him is because they understand the trauma of being under constant attack from people who want to kill you. They also are aware that when it comes to people who commit terrorist acts knowing they are courting death in doing so, it’s not unreasonable to suspect the worst at all times.
As Ruthie Blum writes in The Algemeiner, a Facebook post in which an Israel Defense Forces veteran that was put in a similar situation. In that case, the soldier wound up being injured and a comrade killed in a suicide bombing blast touched off by a Palestinian terrorist who also seemed to be disabled. The post has gone viral and fed sympathy for the accused soldier. This wave of support for the accused man makes it clear that politics and public opinion about the conflict with the Palestinians is inevitably going to play some role in the controversy. Education Minister Naftali Bennett was probably not wrong when he noted that the government and the army have already condemned the soldier making harder for him to get a fair trial. But it’s also true that Bennett, who earned a stern rebuke from both Netanyahu and Yaalon, seeks some advantage here by positioning himself as a critic of a government that is accused of sacrificing an individual to satisfy international opinion.
It’s understandable that many Israelis who rightly consider themselves under siege from a wave of terrorism about which international opinion seems to care little, are not inclined to view the death of a terrorist as something to be upset about. But nevertheless the position of the government seems both wise and fair. If, as army commanders on the spot as well as more senior officials claim, the soldier was not justified in shooting to kill an already disabled person, then it is appropriate that he be made to face justice.
As Netanyahu noted, it is important to note that Israelis are “not like the other side.” Both soldiers and civilians have every right to shoot at those Palestinians seeking to murder any random Jew they happen upon. Yet once the dust settles, if the accused is no longer a threat and the shooter made a unilateral decision that he had to die, then that is a crime, not an act of self-defense. If the army’s rules of engagement and ethical codes are observed, it is not for the sake of pleasing foreigners but because the rule of law must apply even in a time of conflict. If this was a case of a soldier gone bad rather than merely someone making a mistake in the heat of battle, then putting him on trial is the right thing to do. The fact that the army charged the soldier before the controversial video became public undermines the claim that it was acting under political pressure. If, as B’Tselem observed critically, such cases don’t usually result in convictions on the most serious charges it is understandable. Proving intentional murder beyond a reasonable doubt is not easy under any circumstance, but it is even harder when dealing with actions taken in the aftermath of a terrorist incident from those who were under attack.
Having said that, no one should take the complaints of the Palestinians about this or any other incident in which terrorists are killed seriously. Whether or not the shooting was lawful, the intent of the slain man was to kill any Jew, soldier, or civilian, he found. This was not a case of self-defense unless you think, as Israel’s enemies do, that any Arab has the right to try to kill any Jew anywhere in the country. The Palestinian Authority, which praises and subsidizes terrorists, is in no position to judge a Jewish state that is willing to treat the death of a terrorist as a crime.
Far from illustrating the callous disregard of Israelis for Palestinian lives, the willingness of the army to charge a soldier with murder for shooting a terrorist shows how seriously the IDF takes the question of observing ethical behavior even under extraordinary circumstances. If so many Palestinians have been killed in the act of trying to commit murder, it is not because Israelis have a callous disregard for life but because the terrorists seem intent on throwing their lives away much as suicide bombers do. If Palestinian seek truly seek peace, they can negotiate with Israel and recognize the legitimacy of a Jewish state. If so, the overwhelming majority of Israelis are prepared to give them a state. But since Palestinians prefer to cheer terrorism and consider any such compromise unacceptable, the bloodshed will continue.
While the incident in Hebron is a tangled tale in which it will be hard to get at the complete truth, one thing is clear. So long as Palestinians prefer terror to peace, there will be more such incidents with predictably tragic outcomes.
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