Tel Aviv — Video images of a high-ranking Israeli army officer striking a pro-Palestinian demonstrator with the butt of his M-16 rifle touched off a storm of controversy in Israel this week, prompting a round of condemnation by politicians and a spate of soul searching among commentators.
The emergence Sunday of YouTube footage of Lt. Col. Shalom Eisner landing a blow to the face — seemingly without provocation — of Danish protester Andreas Ayas at a Palestinian bicycle rally in the West Bank once again appeared to cast Israel in the image of unprovoked aggressor against apparently peaceful demonstrators.
The incident overshadowed what was supposed to be a public relations victory on the same day: the fizzling of a “fly-in” campaign to bring hundreds of Palestinian solidarity activists to Ben Gurion Airport.
The embarrassment stoked by the video prompted swift reactions, with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu issuing a condemnation that Eisner’s action had “no place” in the Israeli army or in the state of Israel. President Shimon Peres said he was “shocked” by the video.
On Sunday, the Israel Defense Forces ordered Eisner suspended pending further investigation. On Wednesday, Chief of Staff Lt.-Gen. Benny Gantz relieved Eisner of his position as deputy division commander on "moral grounds," according to the IDF. Gantz said the probe also showed professional and command failures.
The case “undermines the argument that the army maintains norms even in the complex situation that exists in the territories,” wrote Ofer Shelach, a political commentator for Yediot Achronot. “One deputy brigade commanding officer, with an assault rifle, has caused harm that it is now difficult to repair.’”
The deputy brigade commander, who said that his finger was broken by demonstrators, said that he made a mistake by using his weapon in front of video cameras, but defended his use of force as not life threatening. In comments broadcast on Israel’s Channel 10 news, he said that his behavior was “in no way an ethical failure.”
Eisner was backed by politicians who said he was deliberately provoked by foreign activists who oppose Israel’s very legitimacy. They also questioned whether politicians and military generals rushed to judge Lt. Col. Eisner before the suspension.
Yossi Klein Halevi, a fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute, said that despite condemnations from the media and political leaders, Israelis feel ambivalent about the incident.
“On the one hand, if he acted without provocation, then this is not the kind of behavior we want to see from high-ranking officers,” he said.
“On the other hand, there is a deep sense of outrage at left-wing Europeans who choose Israel of all countries in the Middle East to vent their humanitarian outrage because it’s easy to demonstrate here. … We have to walk a fine line between maintaining our ethical standards and not to give in to the easy judgment of the European street.”
The bike event and the fly-in Sunday highlight how acts of civil disobedience used by foreign activists and some Palestinians have moved into the vacuum as Israeli-Palestinian diplomacy has been mothballed.
On Tuesday, Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad pulled out of a planned meeting with Netanyahu.
Two days earlier, Israeli authorities blocked entry for several dozen foreign activists who arrived to Ben Gurion Airport declaring their intention to visit Palestine. Hundreds more were barred from boarding planes by security personnel at airports in France, Switzerland and Belgium.
Pro-Palestinian solidarity activists said Israel’s response to the fly-in exposed the government as seeking to quash legitimate protest activities, while Netanyahu dismissed the demonstrators as obsessively focused on Israel’s human rights record instead of on states like Syria. The consensus among commentators was that the fly-in was a bust.
One diplomat called the actions “street theater” that does not have the ability to change the situation on the ground.
“They were very disappointed that their successful propaganda mission on the ‘flytilla’ was ruined by this incident,” said Oren Persico, a media critic for the online magazine The Seventh Eye. “Why did the whole world have to see the brutality of the Israeli army on a day they deal with the flytilla so successfully? It’s not that this is wrong, it’s that it looks bad.”
Reached by telephone, Danish activist Ayas declined to comment. In interviews with the Israeli press, he denied that he used violence against Eisner. Officials from the Danish Foreign Ministry reportedly requested an explanation of the incident from Israel’s government.
A Palestinian activist who organized the bike ride insisted the event was not intended as a political demonstration, but rather to allow participants to take in views of the Jordan Valley from their bicycles.
“For us, nothing would have happened if the Israeli soldiers had not interrupted and started attacking,” said Wisam Shweiki. “Without excuse they started pushing and throwing bicycles to the side of the road.”
An Israeli army spokeswoman said that the military viewed the bike ride as an attempt to block roads used by tourists, and that pro-Palestinian solidarity activists used violence against the soldiers.
“Having dozens of cyclists block a road is not a quiet ride in the park. I don’t buy the allegation they rode naively,” said spokeswoman Avital Leibovitch.
But writing in Ynet.com, Tal Climian, a former elite Israeli soldier, wrote that the video is “just one of thousands of pictures that aren’t photographed. … The pictures depict a daily reality of border police humiliating elderly Palestinians at roadblocks. … Eisner is the emissary and face of us all.”
This story was update on Wednesday, April 5th with information about the IDF demoting Eisner.
JTA contributed to this report.