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Shooting of Young Palestinian Sparks Debate Over Israeli Army Ethics

  • Joshua Brilliant

Twenty-one-year-old Abd al-Fatah al-Sharif was lying flat on his back, eyes shut, hands spread out, in the middle of a street in the West Bank town of Hebron.

A few minutes earlier he and an associate had stabbed an Israeli soldier. The soldiers killed his partner and wounded the black clad al-Sharif.

An ambulance crew was evacuating the soldier when someone shouted, “This terrorist is still alive, the mad dog.” A shot rang and blood trickled from al-Sharif’s head down the gray road.

The incident intensified an argument among Israelis over the security forces’ ethics. Some people were appalled by the shooting of a wounded person. Others maintained al-Sharif got what he deserved.

Israeli soldier arrested

The soldier, who cannot be identified because of a court order, was arrested. He reportedly told his commanders that “whoever stabbed my friend should die.” Later he said he had fired because he feared al-Sharif was carrying a bomb.

Visibly angry, Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon accused him of breaking the law, violating “our ethical standards and the rules of engagement.”

“We have to know how to win and remain human beings,” Ya’alon stressed.

Prosecutors told the soldier he could be charged with murder and aroused a storm.

Sharp disagreement about arrest

Education Minister Naftali Bennet of the hawkish national-religious party, Habayit Hayehudi (The Jewish Home) said that “a soldier sent to the battlefield cannot be a murderer, period."

Former Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman, who heads the hawkish Yisrael Beitenu (Israel is Our Home) maintained the legal process was “a farce.” “A soldier who killed a terrorist is certainly no murderer nor should he be accused of manslaughter,” Liberman maintained.

Oren Hazan, a member of Netanyahu’s Likud Knesset faction declared that “every terrorist must end such an event [as the stabbing] with a bullet in his head.” Hundreds of people who gathered in the soldier’s hometown, Ramla, to support the soldier responded with resounding applause.

Ya’alon was resolute. “What do you want? An army that becomes bestial? An army that has lost its moral backbone?” he challenged his critics in parliament.

PLO, some US politicians have complained

The Palestine Liberation Organization recently asked the United Nations to investigate 207 cases of what it called extrajudicial Israeli executions of Palestinians.

U.S. Senator Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) and 10 members of the House of Representatives asked the U.S. State Department to investigate “reports of what may be extrajudicial killings” of four Palestinians and the torture of two others by Israeli security forces. The findings could lead to a curtailment of U.S. military aid to Israel.

Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu insisted Israel was not culpable. “Israel’s soldiers and police officers defend themselves and innocent civilians with the highest moral standards against bloodthirsty terrorists,” he said.

The army's rules of engagement provide that soldiers should kill an assailant to avoid an attack. However, a second after the attack ends the rules change and it does not matter whether the attacker succeeded or not. What the soldier did "is not our way," said Major General (in the reserves) Elazar Stern who was chief education officer.

Debate continues

In an attempt to stem excessive reactions, the army's Chief of General Staff Lieutenant General Gadi Eisenkot told high school students: "When a 13-year-old-girl holds scissors or a knife and there is a barricade between her and soldiers, I wouldn't want a soldier to open fire and empty a magazine" at her.

The rebuttal came from Sepharadi Chief Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef. It is a religous commandment to kill a terrorist "who comes at you with a knife... Fear not the High Court of Justice or some chief of general staff," he said.

Last October, during a peak in Palestinian stabbings, Israel Democracy Institute pollsters asked Jews whether every Palestinian who attacks Jews should be killed on the spot, even if he is caught and no longer poses a danger. Fifty three percent of the respondents said yes.

Last week the pollsters asked whether one can ignore human and civil rights in order to fight terror more effectively. Forty nine percent of the respondents thought so and another 26 percent replied they “don’t agree so much.”

Soldiers get mixed messages

According to the Haaretz newspaper, ministers, rabbis and popular Internet sites “urge soldiers to kill every terrorist.”

The argument could affect the army's cohesiveness. Pnina Sharvit-Baruch who heads the Law and National Security Program at the National Institute for Strategic Studies noted, “We want a professional army, an army that knows what it is doing, an army that has a chain of command.

“If we let loose on discipline and values we will get a very bad army and that will be our end,” she warned.

Fear of deterioration prompted the defense establishment to react to al-Sharif’s death with unusual speed. The army was “scared” of the impact the shooting might have on other soldiers unless it acted immediately, Stern told reporters.

Last Wednesday the chief of general staff issued a letter to the soldiers. He said the army will back every soldier who “errs in the heat of battle” but “will not hesitate to severely punish soldiers and commanders who deviate from the ethical and operational standards under which we operate.”

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