In April 1984, two Palestinian hijackers of an Israeli passenger bus were captured, taken to a nearby spot away from media view and summarily executed by a member of the Shin Bet.
Initially, false media reports said the two hijackers had been killed in a shootout with Israeli forces, along with two of their compatriots, when the IDF caught up with the runaway bus, headed for the Egyptian border. Only after a photograph emerged showing the two captured hijackers, alive and presumably well, being taken off the bus after the shootout did the incident become an international scandal.
At the time, the strong public reaction in Israeli society was outrage at the Israeli security forces, more for covering up and lying about the incident than the killing of the hijackers. And there was strong criticism of the military censors as well for their actions, including shutting down for three days the offices of Hadashot, the now-defunct newspaper that first published the telltale photo, and a reprimanding of reporters who published the story. An investigative committee scrutinized the procedures of the Shin Bet and of military censors, leading to some easing of policies, and a number of the dozen officers initially charged in the crime were dismissed, though none were jailed.
We revisit this infamous case, known as the Bus 300 Affair, because of the striking similarities — and sharp differences — in comparison to the recent shooting death of a wounded Palestinian would-be terrorist, lying prone on the ground, at the hands of an Israeli soldier.
Here, too, a visual image was key, albeit video footage rather than a photo. And this time it captured the moment of the shooting. Here, too, the Israeli was charged with a crime. But in this case, the public outpouring was in support of the IDF shooter; two-thirds of those polled approved of his action. Many said he was a hero, not a murderer.
To many of us living in the relative safety of America, such a reaction is itself shocking. But in a small society where nerves are on edge over the continuing stabbing attacks, and with a civilian army where every parent must be thinking, “What if this were my son?” the answers are not so simple.
The army remains Israel’s most respected civil institution, and its response was clear. Moshe Yaalon, Israel’s defense minister, called the shooting “an utter breach of the army’s values and its code of ethics in combat.”
But the fact that several government ministers, including Education Minister Naftali Bennett, came to the defense of the shooter, criticized the army, and called on the prime minister to intervene, reveals a rare and troubling split between the state and its army.
Surely the decades of terror attacks and security responses have taken their toll on a society that relies on its military. But they have also taken their toll on that society’s capacity for compassion. As army spokesman Moti Almoz noted of the shooting, “This is not the IDF, these are not the values of the IDF, and these are not the values of the Jewish people.”