Shayna Abramson

Ethics: For Us and for Others

I am trying to find words to wrap around the latest tragedy.

Three Israelis were shot by IDF soldiers in Gaza:

 Yotam Haim, Alon Shamriz and Samar Talalka

Three innocent people, held captive by Hamas, who managed to escape, only to be shot by the forces that are supposed to rescue them.

These people were betrayed by the State of Israel twice: Once, in the immense security and military failure of October 7th, and another time, in their being shot as they tried to present themselves to IDF forces.

These three captives presented themselves with a white flag, semi-stripped down, to show they were not a threat.

It is true that IDF soldiers in Gaza have encountered Hamas terrorists pretending to surrender or to be innocent civilians, who are in fact trying to lure them to a trap.

But it is also true that a basic rule of warfare is you don’t shoot at semi-clothed people waving a white flag.

The IDF has said the shooting violated its code of conduct and of arms, and is fully investigating the incident. It is taking responsibility. It is not pretending that what happened is ok.

But unfortunately, it is hard not to draw comparisons with other events in which soldiers have shot those deemed to be enemy forces in the act of surrendering.

A few weeks ago, Yuval Castleman was killed by an off-duty IDF soldier. Castleman, an Israeli Jew,  had been shooting at Hamas-affiliated terrorists who were shooting Israeli civilians at a bus stop in Jerusalem. The off-duty soldier saw there was a terrorist event and decided to get involved -but then he shot at Castleman, who had already put down his gun and put his arms up when he saw that he was being mistaken for the perpetrator of the attack.

Bibi originally made a speech dismissive of Castleman’s death, before being pressured to more robustly acknowledge it as a tragedy. A police investigation is still ongoing.

The death of Castleman is reminiscent of the Elor Azaria incident. Azaria was an on-duty IDF soldier called to the scene of a terror attack against Jews in Hevron. By the time he got there, the terrorist had been shot and restrained. Azaria shot him anyway, resulting in his death.

Azaria was given an 18-month prison sentence by a military court, which was later shortened to 9 months served. In his defense, he claimed that he believed the terrorist had a bomb hidden under his shirt. However, those claims belied reported comments of his from the time, about believing the terrorist deserved to die. Azaria became a hero of the extreme Israeli right for his actions, even as the IDF censured him for violating IDF codes of conduct.

The thread between these three events is the same: A culture where it is ok to kill a Palestinian terrorist, even if they have surrendered or no longer pose a threat. In other words, a culture of taking the law into one’s own hand and executing, of an assumption that the terrorist deserves to die even once they surrender, rather than a culture of shooting or killing for self-defense or strict military purposes only.

How we treat our enemies will ultimately define how we treat each other. If we create a culture in which it is ok to shoot Palestinians, we wind up with a culture where it is ok to shoot Jews, as long as the reason we shoot them is that we have credible reason to think they’re Palestinian. I fear, that further on, this leads to a culture where it is ok to shoot Jews, even when it’s not a case of mistaken identity.

Of course, it should never be ok to shoot a person who has surrendered, regardless of their ethnicity. Hamas knows this, and sets up traps that are meant to prey on Israel’s commitment to military ethics, just as it chooses to operate in civilian areas in order to challenge Israel’s desire to prevent civilian deaths.

But we need to do better. This is not just a question of enemy combatants dying in situations that challenge our military morals; it is a question of a situation where our army kills its own people, the people it is committed to protect

Events like the killing of Yotam Haim, Alon Shamriz and Samar Talalka challenge the social contract between Israelis and their army, precisely at a time when that contract needs bolstering in the wake of the October 7th massacres. The IDF is engaged in a war against  Hamas, an organization that poses an existential threat to the country; its mission cannot succeed if it does not feel that it has the support of the people behind it, especially since so many of the soldiers currently fighting are reservists who have put their civilian life on hold to fight this war.

I know this event is being investigated by the IDF at the highest levels. I trust that the army will draw lessons from this in how it polices its own codes of conduct on the battlefield in a very complex military and moral situation on the ground.

I cannot imagine what these hostages went through in their final moments. I cannot imagine what their families are going through. I can only hope that their memory is a blessing – I can challenge us to make their memory a blessing. We can and must, pray and act, as much as it is within our power, so that all the captives are returned safely soon to their families.

Bring them home now.

About the Author
Shayna Abramson, a part-Brazilian native Manhattanite, studied History and Jewish Studies at Johns Hopkins University before moving to Jerusalem. She has also spent some time studying Torah at the Drisha Institute in Manhattan, and has a passion for soccer and poetry. She is currently pursuing an M.A. in Political Science from Hebrew University, and is a rabbinic fellow at Beit Midrash Har'el.