The public reactions to the event in Hebron on March 24, in which a soldier shot a seriously wounded Palestinian terrorist in the head, which was recorded on video by a B’Tselem photographer, demonstrated what has been well known for a long time – that on the level of basic norms the Jews in the State of Israel are progressively turning into two nations.
The IDF has very strict rules of engagement (ROE): once an enemy has been neutralized and no longer poses an immediate threat to you or anyone else, they may not be fired upon.
Even the Chief Sephardi Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef, who three weeks ago gave a highly controversial weekly lesson in which he told his audience that there is a religious command to kill a terrorist who confronts you with a knife, without fear of what any Chief of Staff or High Court of Justice might say, added that “if he no longer holds a knife, he should be given a life sentence until the Messiah, who will declare who ought to be considered Amalek, will arrive, and then we shall be able to kill them.”
There are two major problems with the rules of engagement. The first is that it is not always easy to determine whether or not a terrorist who has been seriously wounded may nevertheless still pose a threat.
The second is that there are examples in which IDF personnel, even of the highest rank, have acted in a manner contrary to the ROE. The best known example is the No. 300 bus incident in April 1984, in which a Palestinian terrorist was shot dead after being taken prisoner alive and unarmed. In that event the high-ranking officers involved were given clemency by president Chaim Herzog, even before they had been charged.
As the saying goes: Im ba’arazim naflah shalhevet, ma ya’asu azovei hakir? (If the mighty have succumbed how shall the weak emerge unscathed?).
In both events – in Hebron a week-and-ahalf ago and on the Tel Aviv-Ashkelon highway 32 years ago – there was incriminating photographic evidence. However, in the earlier event if it hadn’t been for a photograph of the live terrorist being removed from the bus on his two feet (taken by the celebrated photographer Alex Levac) it is doubtful whether any investigation would have taken place, while in last week’s event an investigation had actually begun before the B’Tselem video footage was aired; the footage merely ensured that the investigation would not be low key.
The facts we know so far about what transpired in Hebron is that the soldier in question arrived on the scene shortly after the attack – in which one Israeli soldier suffered minor wounds – was over. Before the soldier’s arrival one terrorist had been shot dead, and another was seriously wounded and was lying on the ground, without being attended to, after an officer had verified that there was no explosive device on him.
The soldier shot the wounded terrorist without consulting any of his superiors who were close by, claiming that he felt threatened, even though none of the other persons visible in the video footage seemed perturbed. A report that has not yet been confirmed indicated that immediately after killing the terrorist, the soldier had said to a colleagues that “he [the Palestinian terrorist] deserved to die. He knifed my friends.” Though the B’Tselem footage recorded the soldier being greeted by and shaking hands with the extreme rightwing activist Baruch Marzel after the event, this does not necessarily indicate that he has Kahanist leanings, though that is certainly a question being looked into.
According to opinion polls a majority of the Jewish population in Israel apparently believes that the soldier is a hero, and that even if he erred should be released and not charged.
On social media this majority is as high as 80 percent.
Both Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon and Chief of Staff Gadi Eisenkot declared that the IDF would not back up breaches of orders and norms. Ya’alon went further and condemned ministers and MKs who chose to attack the IDF for the manner in which it was dealing with the event. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu also initially said that “the events in Hebron do not represent IDF values,” but then proceeded to call up the soldier’s father to tell him that he could understand the family’s distress, and to assure him that his son would receive a fair investigation.
Strangely enough, Yehuda Glick, the next on the Likud list due to enter the Knesset should a seat be vacated, a supporter of the right of Jews to pray freely on the Temple Mount and who himself was very seriously wounded by a Palestinian terrorist in October 2014, condemned the soldier’s act, saying, “I am shocked to see an IDF soldier shooting a helpless individual in the head, even if he is a terrorist.” He also said that he objects to the soldier being declared a hero, just as he objects to the human rights organizations questioning the IDF’s morality.
What the case of Glick proves is that the divide between those who believe that one should try to maintain universal moral principles and norms even when confronting deadly enemies, and those who believe that different rules apply when it comes to the killing of Arabs, or banishing them from Israel (as several prominent rabbis, including the Chief Sephardi rabbi, maintain) is not necessarily one between Right and Left, or even religious and secular.
Glick was subsequently accused by extreme right-wingers of being a “filthy leftist” and human rights activist (Glick does not deny that both his position regarding the Temple Mount and his condemnation of the soldier’s actions in Hebron are struggles in favor of human rights).
One of the characteristics of those who support and praise the soldier is that they also believe that the true culprits are the human rights organizations like B’Tselem. In their opinion, It is not that these organizations have gone too far and should mend their ways, but that the mere engagement in human rights activities vis-à-vis the Palestinians is an act of treason.
Currently both the IDF in general and the chief of staff in particular are on the moral and normative side of this divide, and can be trusted to do their best to increase the awareness of all IDF personnel as to what is expected of them, and why.
However, in my opinion, education for the importance of upholding universal moral and normative rules of conduct must begin in the school system, not in the army. The problem is that our Education Minister, Naftali Bennett, believes that at this juncture it is more important to strengthen the religious instruction which secular children receive (hopefully not on the basis of the teachings of the Sephardi chief rabbi) than to inculcate universal values in all Israeli children, secular and religious alike.
Bennett’s attacks on the media and on the IDF for immediately assuming that the soldier was in the wrong, even though the footage, and an initial IDF investigation on the scene of the event clearly indicated that he was, suggests that Bennett cannot be expected to harness himself to the required educational effort.
That is a shame. Though it might be too late to stop the growing rift between the two Jewish nations in Israel, those in power should certainly try. If they refrain from doing so they will be judged by history, and found guilty.
The writer is a political scientist and a retired Knesset employee.