This afternoon’s tragic death of Eliav Gelman, an IDF reserve captain killed by army fire responding to a terrorist attack – the second friendly-fire fatality in the past three months – could build support for army Chief of Staff Lt. Gen Gadi Eisenkot’s comments last week which called into question the propriety of the security establishment’s ‘shoot to kill’ stance frequently employed against Palestinian assailants.
The 30-year-old father of two reservist died as a result of fire directed towards a Palestinian attacker who jumped upon him in the notorious Etzion Junction in the Gush Etzion area south of Jerusalem, the popular hitchhiking post that has been the site of almost weekly violence since the beginning of a wave of Palestinian stabbing attacks erupted last October.
Today’s incident follows last December’s accidental death at Jaffa Gate outside Jerusalem’s Old City in which a 40 year old Israeli man died after being wounded by errant police fire responding to another attempted stabbing.
The timing of this afternoon’s tragedy could re-invigorate the debate surrounding comments made by IDF Chief of Staff Lt. Gen Gadi Eisenkot last week in which the senior officer criticized the rules of engagement regarding attacks by unarmed Palestinian attacks.
“When there’s a 13-year-old girl holding scissors or a knife and there is some distance between her and the soldiers, I don’t want to see a soldier open fire and empty his magazine at a girl like that, even if she is committing a very serious act,” the army chief told a group of high school students last week, in response to a question questioning the army’s “lenient” operating procedures in such circumstances.
Although the army chief did not propose a means of non-deadly engagement with attackers (although Tasers guns are in use by Israel police, they have not been widely employed in the current terror wave against nationalistic attackers) he added that “the army cannot speak in slogans such as ‘If a person rises to kill you, kill him first,’”– referring to an edict in Jewish religious law permitting preemptive response to an attacker in defined circumstances.
Eiskenot’s remarks quickly drew the vitriol of right-wing Rabbis and legislators, including Deputy Foreign Minister Tzipi Hotovely who accused the army chief of damaging Israel’s image by lending credence to allegations by Swedish Foreign Minister Margot Wallstrom that Israel was committing “extrajudicial killings” by responding with deadly force against Palestinian attackers rarely bearing firearms. Transport Minister Yisrael Katz (Likud) later accused the military head of encouraging “hesitation and risking lives.”
The widely-reported comments were brusquely dismissed by Prime Minister Netanyahu at the subsequent Cabinet meeting, but the premier and other ministers subsequently lent support to his views.
Although the majority of shooting responses to Palestinian attackers have been conducted by the police and Border Police, the latter contains a sizable number of IDF conscripts and is often deployed to assist army troops, particularly at flash-point sites where a large amount of the attacks have occurred.
Those arguing in favor of the appropriateness of the current security response to stabbing attacks – a mostly daily occurrence since the outbreak of violence – point to the fact that while the assailants are mostly unarmed, they sometimes are.
Two terrorists armed with automatic weapons opened fire on Israeli police at Damascus Gate last week and sappers defused two pipe bombs in a kiosk outside the Old City of Jerusalem this morning.
In addition, the consequences of stabbing attacks with knives are, of themselves, often fatal: 28 Israelis have been killed and over 300 wounded since the spree of violence, thought to be primarily driven by Palestinian libels – made viral by social media – that Israel is plotting the destruction of the Al Aqsa mosque, began four months ago.
However lessons that could be learned from today’s tragedy, and that in December, perhaps merit inclusion in the counter-debate.
That no matter how urgent the need to “neutralize” those bent on indiscriminately attacking civilians, responding with fire-arms in the densely populated and chaotic milieu in which most of the attacks occur also poses a threat to those in the vicinity.
Or eve more tragically, as today, to the attack victims themselves.