Are IDF soldiers shooting Palestinians against orders?
Shlomi Eldar, Al-Monitor, Jul 27 2016
Photo: Amir Cohen/Reuters
The trial of IOF soldier Elor Azaria is underway. In March, Azaria shot to death Abd’el-Fattah al-Sharif, who lay on the ground wounded and incapacitated after he stabbed another IDF soldier in Hebron. In testimony on the witness stand Jul 24, Azaria said the scene of the incident had not been managed properly following the attack. He said:
You can see civilians walking around … photographers entering the zone … in what should have been a closed military area.
Azaria described his commanders as complacent. During his three days of testimony, Azaria also attacked the senior command echelon of the IDF and claimed:
They threw me to the dogs because of their fear of the press, the media.
We cannot ignore the fact that Azaria did not operate in a vacuum. The public atmosphere that existed in Israel encouraged shooting to kill with regard to every terrorist with a knife, without holding anyone accountable. A series of politicians from the right and the center contributed a great deal to the creation of this atmosphere. After the Azaria incident, I wrote an article for Al-Monitor in which I quoted the words of a lawyer who specializes in human rights, Michael Sfard:
If I were the defense attorney for the young man from Hebron, I know who I would have summoned as my first witness claiming that the responsibility for the killing cannot be borne solely by an 18-year-old boy.
Sfard was referring to the words uttered by Yesh Atid Chair Yair Lapid in Oct 2015 at the beginning of the current terror wave:
With zero tolerance. You see someone with a knife, you see someone with a screwdriver, you should shoot to kill, don’t think twice.
In the first weeks of the wave of terror attacks that started at the beginning of Sep 2015, the expression on everyone’s lips was, “If someone comes to kill you, arise to kill them first.” (BT Berakhot 58a). Many of the attack scenes were conducted in this vein. Video clips of Israeli civilians were disseminated on the internet in which one could see evidence of the Israeli itchy-finger-on-the-trigger syndrome. The IDF and entire security system fell silent during this period and did not condemn or take action against those who shot those Palestinian attackers who did not threaten the lives of the soldiers. This was the policy and the atmosphere that allowed an IDF soldier to shoot 18-year-old Hadil Hashlamoun at the checkpoint near the Cave of the Patriarchs on Sep 22. In a video clip that was disseminated later, it is clear that the soldier’s life was not in danger. At the Qalandia West Bank checkpoint Apr 28, Home Security Ministry security guards shot to death two siblings, Maram Abu Ismayil and Ibrahim Salah Tahah, even though the guards’ lives were not in danger. This incident was especially salient because the brother and sister were according to a video, at a great distance from the guards, who acted in blatant violation of orders. Afterward, a police investigation unit opened an investigation against them, yet so far the guards have not been put on trial.
There is a long list of incidents in which security force members violated the rules, but one of them is especially prominent. During Nakba Day events in the territories in May 2014, border policeman Ben Deri opened fire with no apparent reason and killed youth Nadim Nuwara close to the Bitunia checkpoint. In a security-camera video clip that was also disseminated by the B’Tselem organization, one can clearly see the soldier’s commander take the weapon away from him after the shooting. But aside from that, at the time, no one was called to account until the clip was circulated and a public outcry erupted. This was the atmosphere in which Azaria operated. And Azaria, too, was only taken into detention after the video clip was made public by B’Tselem. In an interview I conducted in April with Imad Abu Shamsiya, the B’Tselem photographer who documented the incident in Hebron, Abu Shamsiya drew attention to the fact that shortly before the shooting, Azaria is seen taking off his helmet, handing it over to his commander and whispering something in his ear. It is only after that when he shoots the assailant. After the shooting and killing of Sharif, Azaria was not immediately arrested, and no one took his weapon away from him.
All of the above by no way reduces Azaria’s responsibility. Even at this stage of the trial it is clear that Azaria operated contrary to orders, and his actions reflect the way a blind eye had been turned all along to this kind of behaviour, especially when the persons involved were not documented by cameras. The Israeli media also contributed to this general mood when it screened the executions perpetrated on incapacitated attackers, over and over, without anyone asking incisive questions like: Why is no one putting an end to this? Is this the way to cope with a terror wave? What will be the ethical, legal and security-related ramifications that the IOF will be forced to confront on the day after? The unclear, shadowy policy regarding the way IOF soldiers and Border Guard policemen are to act in the event of terror attacks was not sharpened, and fire engagement rules as seen in other incidents documented by civilians were not enforced even after Chief of Staff Gadi Eizenkot told high school students in Bat Yam in February:
I don’t want a soldier to empty a magazine on a girl with scissors.
His words, implying that IOF soldiers have itchy fingers on the trigger, generated an extensive public storm and attracted a great deal of criticism against the chief of staff, who had allegedly doubted the ethics of the army. Unfortunately, his words did not manage to avert the shooting by Azaria. The question of questions that must be clarified now is whether Azaria is the only guilty party in this incident. Perhaps there are many others who are also responsible for the current state of affairs, and they must also be held accountable. In fact, the military court is not dealing with an incident involving one soldier alone, but with a series of politicians who disseminated the feeling that a soldier is allowed to fire at a girl with scissors and to kill an assailant who no longer endangers him.