Stop the Irrational Debate on Israeli Soldiers

Over the last few days, Israelis have been engrossed by the incident of the soldier in Hebron who killed a motionless Palestinian terrorist in the aftermath of a knife attack which wounded two Israelis. A video of the incident was released by B’Tselem, and soon spread on traditional and social media.

Predictably, reactions were immediately polarised. Parts of the Israeli left castigated not only the individual soldier, but also the Israeli system in general. Meanwhile, some on the Israeli right jumped to the soldier’s defence, rebuffing charges of murder and claiming that his conduct was proper and even praiseworthy.

B’Tselem’s initial Facebook post claimed that this “street execution, lawless and with no trial, is the direct consequence of fierce speech by government ministers”. Breaking the Silence added that the incident provided “a glimpse into the reality of occupation,” before uploading a bleak graphic to its Facebook page calling for an end to occupation. In response, a Facebook post by Jewish Home party leader Naftali Bennett declared unequivocally that “the soldier is not a murderer,” Likud MK Nava Boker staunchly demanded that “the B’Tselem photographer must be investigated” for knowing about and failing to prevent a terror attack, and the deputy mayor of Ma’ale Adumim publicised a rally in support of the soldier on Facebook.

A more mature reaction would be to suspend our own political beliefs for a moment and instead attempt to determine facts, understand the circumstances, and consider the greater context of such events.

So much careless conjecture, but precious few facts. In truth, whether the soldier’s actions were warranted or not is beside the point; the political point-scoring before an investigation has barely started is unhelpful and fosters deep mutual distrust. Instead, we should learn a few things:

First, it’s vital to understand the high-pressured environment soldiers operate in. While instances of abuse and unlawful violence are inexcusable and must be punished, reality is not black and white. Before passing judgement from the safety of our keyboards, a more mature reaction would be to suspend our own political beliefs for a moment and instead attempt to determine facts, understand the circumstances, and consider the greater context of such events. A balanced response requires acknowledging the thoughts and intentions of the soldier in question, reflecting on the context, and taking in the words and actions of those around him. Only then should we form our opinions.

Second, such incidents are not cut and dried, even when they seem to be. It pays to wait for the dust to settle before donning our judges’ wigs and pronouncing our verdicts. The soldier’s family has spoken out as having undergone a horrendous last few days, and it’s hard not to feel sorry for the soldier’s father, whose phone number was circulated on Facebook along with an invitation to harass and intimidate him.

Third, the temptation to immediately analyse complex situations is fuelling a deep, grave rift. This episode demonstrates how people jump to conclusions which support their own preconceived notions. Both sides do it, and call out the other side for doing it, but seem unaware of their own role in the phenomenon. The tendency of some to explain away failings and genuine abuses of power undermines credibility, and the inclination to assume our soldiers can do no wrong prevents honest, balanced conversation about our failings. Meanwhile, the propensity of others to assume the worst of our soldiers, publicly condemn and protest before waiting to see if there is a wider context which justifies or mitigates such actions debilitates rational public conversation, and the rush to describe controversial actions as characteristic of an entire army or government before the facts are known unfortunately alienate the left from the Israeli middle-ground.

Regarding this specific case, knee-jerk denials and unconditional shows of support for a soldier who might yet be found guilty are poorly considered. Videos clearly show soldiers standing near the terrorist, unconcerned by possible suicide bombs. Furthermore, a subsequent army statement explained that when an explosive vest is involved, soldiers are forbidden from shooting. In which case, even if the terrorist still posed a threat, shooting him was actually a contravention of IDF protocol.

Conversely, the soldier’s assertion that he was concerned by the terrorist potentially detonating a suicide bomb vest at any moment deserves attention – on numerous occasions in the past, seemingly harmless or disarmed attackers have managed to plunge knives and blow up suicide vests, killing Israeli soldiers who declined to shoot first and ask questions later. At the very least, the actions of one soldier should certainly not be used to tar an entire army. If anything, after hundreds of stabbings, car rammings and foiled terror attacks over the last six months, the uproar over this one incident underlines how the army gets it right the vast majority of the time.

About the Author
Emanuel Miller is Marketing and Content manager for HonestReporting, an organization dedicated to defending Israel against prejudice in the media.