Israeli Prime Benjamin Netanyahu faced a revolt from his more extreme right-wing ministers following his condemnation of an Israeli soldier who shot dead a Palestinian assailant who lay wounded and subdued on the ground following an attack on a group of soldiers.
The March 24 incident in Hebron was captured on video by a fieldworker for B’Tselem, the Israeli human rights NGO. On the video a man can be heard saying “this terrorist is still alive, this dog.”
“What happened in Hebron does not represent the IDF’s [Israeli Defence Forces] values,” Netanyahu initially said when the video was released the next day. “The IDF expects its soldiers to act calmly and in accordance with the rules of engagement.”
Army prosecutors charged the soldier, who is not being named, with murder at the Jaffa Military Court on March 25 after an initial investigation concluded that he shot the disarmed and wounded Palestinian assailant after the latter no longer constituted a threat. The charge was later downgraded to manslaughter. The soldier was released April 1 to serve his jail service – the length of which has yet to be determined – on an open military base.
Spying an opportunity to attack the prime minister, at Sunday’s cabinet meeting Education Minister Naftali Bennett, of the extreme right-wing Jewish Home party exclaimed, “Why is he being led to court in handcuffs? What kind of message does this send to thousands of soldiers? An indictment for ‘murder’? You’re confused about who the good guys are and who the bad guys are! Why is the entire leadership dancing to the tune of B’Tselem?”
By Sunday, defending himself from right-wing attacks, Netanyahu had shifted his tone, and said “any challenge to the morality of the IDF is outrageous and unacceptable. The soldiers of the IDF, our children, maintain high ethical values while courageously fighting against bloodthirsty murderers under difficult operational conditions. I am certain that in all cases, as in the current one, the inquiry takes into account all conditions. We must all support the IDF chief of staff, the IDF and our soldiers, who safeguard our security.”
Outside the cabinet, former foreign minister Avigdor Lieberman, of Yisrael Beiteynu [Israel Our Home], another right-wing party, snarled that “the prime minister is worthy of being called the ultimate weather vane. I saw Netanyahu’s first statement, and then he saw where the winds were blowing – and flipped his position. How can a soldier even expect a fair investigation, a fair trial, when all in the proper authorities in the IDF already know what the commander wants?”
The initial findings of the Israeli army’s probe into the incident are devastating to the soldier, whose lawyer claims his client acted because he feared the stabber may have been wearing an explosive jacket hidden under his shirt.
The investigation revealed that, following regulations, a superior officer had confirmed that the wounded assailant posed no danger and the incident was declared over. The soldier in question, a medic, left the scene only to return minutes later to a situation clearly under control, and, without consulting officers also on the scene, shot Abdul Fatah Al-Sharif at point-blank range in the head.
Servicemen interviewed by military police reported the accused soldier told them “the terrorist needs to die” after the Palestinian stabbed one of the soldiers and that his comrades “tried to calm him.”
“The procedure for a situation in which there is suspicion the terrorist has an explosive belt on is clear and known, and includes telling the other troops to back away and be careful, something the soldier did not do,” an IDF official told Israeli media.
Speaking with the Media Line, Elazar Stern, a parliamentarian representing the centrist Yesh Atid party, who previously served as the head of the army’s manpower directorate and chief education officer, said there is “a very, very, very small possibility the soldier deviated from the rules slightly. On the face of it, it appears he simply flouted the rules completely. The event was over six minutes before he came back. There is absolutely no chance he obeyed the rules, which are clear and which I was taught and which I myself taught generations of soldiers.”
Stern mentioned several incidents in which IDF soldiers, including himself, obeyed orders to protect the lives of Palestinian youths and put their own lives at risk.”
Nava Boker, a member of the Knesset from Netanyahu’s Likud party demanded that the Palestinian B’Tselem fieldworker be investigated for filming the incident in Hebron and on March 26 a group of right-wing activists filed a police complaint against Emad Abu-Shamsiyah, the cameraman.
B’Tselem said that Abu-Shamsiyah’s Hebron home was attacked by Jewish Israelis living in post-1967 territory, throwing rocks and chanting “Death to Emad.” IDF soldiers at the scene did not intervene, according to their report.
“When you take into account that the IDF chief of staff and the minister of defence have been attacked over this incident,” Jessica Montell the former director of B’Tselem, told the Media Line, “it is not surprising that a Palestinian from the West Bank is also facing threats. This case has shocked everyone and it’s causing a political furor.”
Addressing the political firestorm, Stern said “the ongoing competition on the right to see who can be more extreme and to a certain extent the reasons behind the cabinet infighting are the very same causes that lead to an atmosphere in which a soldier could misunderstand matters and take them into his own hands.
“I have no doubt,” he added, “that the IDF is the most moral army in world, and that is precisely because we are not tolerant of incidents like this.”