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A bullet in the IDF’s rules of engagement

The Hebron shooting reflects the aims of far right Israelis who seek to imbue the army with a biblical ethos

There was once a lively and somewhat duplicitous discussion in Israel about the IDF command to “confirm the kill.” The order was never made public and at times the army distanced itself from it, but those who served in combat units, and particularly those who served in units that required the anti-terror course, knew well that this was standard operating procedure.

Say you burst into a room with hostages and armed terrorists. The first thing you were trained to do, if you managed to shoot and wound a terrorist, was to put a bullet in his head. This was standard. And the rationale was clear: otherwise the terrorist might detonate an explosive that would kill everyone.

The orders stood on the conventional battlefield, too. Say you were storming a trench that ringed a hilltop. Perhaps, while running uphill, you shot an enemy from 15 yards out. Hit him full in the chest with a burst of fire. The first thing you had been taught to do, as an advancing infantryman, immediately upon falling into the trench, was to shoot him in the head. If your gun failed, you were taught to bash him with the weapon. Otherwise he might loosen the pin on a grenade or produce a final squeeze of the trigger, and kill you all.

The army, for public consumption, often pretended that this order did not exist. In fact, it was taught from Day One. And the protocol seemed to be rooted in morally defensible ground — so long as combat continued, the enemy had to be neutralized, the force protected.

What happened on Thursday in Hebron, as seen in the video distributed by B’tselem, is of an entirely different nature. The accused soldier was not even on the scene at the time of the assault. He played no role in the combat. He showed up six minutes afterwards. The Palestinian assailant, who had stabbed an Israeli soldier, was prone and practically lifeless. The officers next to him stood around casually. Clearly they were not concerned about the prospect of an explosive device. The accused soldier showed up, chambered a bullet, and, judging by the video evidence, executed a wounded terrorist. He also, by the way, may have endangered the soldiers around him, shooting through a crowd. At any rate, what he did appears to have more in common with the Bus 300 affair — when living terrorists were killed by Shin Bet officers shortly after an attack — than with confirming the kill.

The public outcry — much like the one following the arrests of the alleged Duma murderer and his accomplices — is not merely solidarity with a soldier who lost his wits and whose innocence or guilt must yet be investigated in a court of law. It is not merely part of a call for domestic solidarity in the face of outrageous charges against Israel, such as those leveled by the UNHRC, a counter-reaction to the world’s fixation with Israel’s morality. It is also part of a rising ideological wave within Israel that seeks to change the army’s Rules of Engagement.

This was evident in Israel during the Gaza war in 2014. Far-right groups distributed stickers, seen with worrying regularity, that read: “The lives of our soldiers come first.” The subtext in this case was: at all costs. Irrespective of the moral imperative of proportionality.

It is evident in the responses of MK Bezalel Smotrich, who regularly quotes the talmudic adage “Rise up to kill the one who comes to kill you.”

Smotrich is part of a small but growing minority of religious voices that seek to instill a biblical ethos in the modern army.

This is the animating force of the far-right. This is what the hilltop youth believe: that the mealy-mouthed doctrines of democracy are irrelevant; that enemies are to be treated in the manner of Joshua and Saul.

For now, it’s a fringe group. But the fact that a reserves major has garnered more than 50,000 signatures on a petition that calls for the arrested soldier to be “raised up and praised” for his actions; the fact that the opportunistic former foreign minister, Avigdor Liberman, has called for Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon’s resignation in light of his statements condemning the soldier’s actions; the fact that Education Minister Naftali Bennett has come out in partial support of the soldier, emphasizing the possible mitigating circumstances, shows that more is at play than this soldier’s future. The army’s morality, so brazenly battered from the outside, is now under assault from within.

And, as his recent behavior makes clear, the IDF’s own chief of staff, Lt. Gen. Gadi Eisenkot, is keenly aware that these internal threats to the army’s its moral code are as dire as any external threats it may be facing.

About the Author
Mitch Ginsburg is a writer and translator and former military correspondent for The Times of Israel.