Beit Shemesh, Israel — “Better a dead terrorist than a soldier dead!” shouted Amalia Bochbot through a megaphone at a demonstration at the entrance of this Israeli city.
Days after a human rights videographer filmed an Israeli soldier firing on a Palestinian attacker who was wounded and lying on the ground, the uproar on the streets in Israel and in the halls of government refuses to die down.
Amid an outpouring of public support for the soldier — whose identity was placed under a court gag order — Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon and army chief Gadi Eisenkot have been on the defensive over a military criminal investigation that could result in a murder or manslaughter indictment.
“Shame on you, defense minister and prime minister for abandoning soldiers,” Bochbot continued. “They should release [the soldier] immediately without a trial.”
The controversy stems from a double stabbing attempt on soldiers patrolling the old city of Hebron. While one of the Palestinian terrorists was killed, a second was injured by a shooting. A video shot by a field activist from the Israeli human rights organization B’Tselem showed the injured terrorist barely moving on the ground with soldiers at ease standing nearby. Suddenly, a lone soldier appears and fires from close range.
The shooter has said that he was acting in self-defense out of fear that the Palestinian might detonate an explosive vest. Army prosecutors claim there was no danger, that the terrorist had been checked for explosives, and that the soldier acted on his own initiative, without any orders to do so.
The case has sparked a furious political dispute within Netanyahu’s government, with Education Minister Naftali Bennett from the rival Jewish Home party accusing the prime minister and the defense minister of confusing the “good guys” and the “bad guys” and taking cues from B’Tselem, the much-criticized human rights group that published the video of the killing.
Yaalon responded on Monday to the criticism, asserting that it is important for Israel’s army to remain humane amid warfare and that there is a need to establish moral boundaries — and when someone oversteps those boundaries, like in the case of the shooting in Hebron, the military must speak out against it. “Do you want a military of beasts?”
Netanyahu said on Thursday that the actions of the soldier did not reflect the values of the army.
The argument reflects the ongoing tensions within Israel amid the government’s inability to stop an ongoing wave of stabbing, shooting and car ramming attacks that some call a third Palestinian uprising or an “intifada of individuals.”
Bennett’s criticism is echoing through social networks, and at street protests, the soldier is being hailed as a national hero. Online petitions have gathered tens of thousands of signatures, while a survey by Channel 2 news found that 57 percent of Israelis opposed the soldier’s arrest.
“I’m very proud of the soldier. He did something that might not be legal, but it was a Jewish thing to do. This is a case where the law doesn’t necessarily reflect Jewish values,” said Aryeh Sonnenberg, who held a sign at the Beit Shemesh demonstration saying: “The soldier restored justice to the people.”
Earlier on Monday, a former junior military officer told Israel Radio “it doesn’t matter the circumstances. It’s a terrorist who came to kill. I don’t care about being humane. I don’t care about the world. Killing a terrorist should be natural.”
At stake, say analysts, is an attempt to influence the army’s rules of engagement and whether the soldiers can be held accountable for their actions in confronting Palestinians in the West Bank.
“Behind it [the criticism] is an attempt to establish a new standard in the fight against the Palestinians: that there is no such thing as abnormal behavior by soldiers,’’ wrote Amos Harel in the liberal Haaretz newspaper. He noted that under such an approach, all behavior is acceptable and beyond the purview of a court.
Haaretz reported on Tuesday that the chief of staff plans to distribute a special letter to all soldiers discussing the incident and reminding soldiers of the army’s code of ethics.
What explains the public sympathy for a soldier who the army is about to court martial? For one, foot soldiers are seen as kids in need of protection from the military bureaucracy.
“The soldiers are the golden cow of Israel. You can’t touch a soldier,” said Mitchell Barak, an Israeli-American public opinion expert. “The prime minister and the defense minister seem to have reacted too soon. They seem to have turned on him when they shouldn’t. They should have waited for the trial.”
Barak added that the incident was preceded by months of incendiary remarks by public figures about the need to kill terrorists involved in the stabbing attacks. Indeed, during a wave of attacks at the end of 2014, Israel’s Public Security Minister at the time said that he expects police to kill the attackers. And more recently, Israel’s Sephardic chief rabbi encouraged Israelis to kill attackers.
“There’s a tremendous amount of incitement on the Jewish side — that anyone trying to carry out a terrorist attack will be killed on the spot,” he said.
The Hebron shooting recalls several incidents in recent months in which Israeli security officials have seemingly overstepped their authority, using force when it was no longer necessary: In November, a policeman shot two Palestinian teenage girls, one fatally, as they lay on the ground, after stabbing a Palestinian man they apparently thought was Jewish near an outdoor market in Jerusalem. And just two weeks ago, an Israeli police volunteer shot a Palestinian after he stabbed an American tourist to death even though the Palestinian was lying on the ground wounded.
Amid such an atmosphere, there’s confusion in the Israeli public about just in what situation it’s permissible to use force against a Palestinian attacker.
“There is a consensus that a terrorist should be killed in the act,’’ said Dahlia Scheindlin, a Tel Aviv-based public opinion analyst and strategic consultant. “That is conflated with the idea that the meaning of justice is to kill them on the sidewalk, and there shouldn’t be an attempt to make an arrest.”
The fact that the initial video of the incident was published by B’Tselem — a human rights watchdog group frequently denounced as traitors — is also stoking public anger against the government. “This country is deteriorating because of B’Tselem, the radical left, and all the Arab [Israeli] parties,’’ said Simon Asraf, a 56-year-old construction foreman, at the Beit Shemesh demonstration.
The shooting incident appeared to bolster claims by the Palestinians that Israel is carrying out so-called extra-judicial executions on attackers. Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat called on the United Nations to launch an official inquiry into the killings, while the United Nations envoy to the Middle East condemned the shooting.
At a military court on Tuesday, a judge extended an order for the soldier’s arrest by three days, while outside the court building hundreds of supporters of the soldier chanted for his release and anti-Arab slogans.
“All terrorists should know that he won’t get out of it alive,” said Asraf at the Beit Shemesh rally. “That his blood will be upon his head.”