Susie Becher
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Evolution of a take-no-prisoners culture

The killing of 3 Israeli hostages by Israeli troops reflects a record of soldiers shooting first and asking questions later
Supporters accompany Elor Azaria on his way home after his release from prison on May 18, 2018 (Hadas Parush/Flash90)
Supporters accompany Elor Azaria on his way home after his release from prison on May 18, 2018 (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

The heartbreaking tragedy of the killing of Yotam Haim, Alon Shamriz, and Samar Talalka after escaping Hamas captivity on December 15 has been attributed to a momentary misjudgment. But given the cultivation of a take-no-prisoners culture and the years of exposure Israeli soldiers have had to the demonization of Palestinians, the explanation may be far darker.

A line can be drawn from Abdel Fattah al-Sharif’s death at the hands of Elor Azaria in 2016 to the tragic deaths of the three hostages. It’s not a straight line. It zigzags from al-Sharif to Ahmad Manasra, the 23-year-old Palestinian mistakenly shot in 2019 by a soldier who was given community service and a three-month suspended sentence for taking an innocent life.

From there it veers to Eyad al-Hallaq, the 32-year-old autistic Palestinian shot dead in 2020 because a soldier made “an honest mistake” in thinking he was facing an armed terrorist. No charges were filed.

Then there’s Ammar Abu Afifa, a Palestinian teenager shot dead in 2022 while running away from IDF soldiers. Oops.

The same day that the three hostages were killed, a 30-year-old Palestinian was shot dead after grabbing a knife and moving toward soldiers at a West Bank checkpoint. His intentions may have been deadly, but we’ll never know because the soldiers played judge, jury, and executioner before he attacked, as has become the norm in recent years.

December 15 was an inauspicious date for Mustafa Alkharouf as well. Alkharouf, a Palestinian photojournalist, was severely beaten by Israeli Border Police officers in East Jerusalem and required hospitalization.

Video footage of the incident shows the policemen, who later claimed that the journalist was interfering with the performance of their duty, brandishing their weapons at the unarmed man, knocking him down, and kicking him while he lies prone on the ground. True to form, National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir rushed to defend the officers, claiming that “our fighters should not be judged under ‘laboratory conditions’” and vowing to return the suspended officers to duty.

Only a few weeks earlier, a soldier on reserve duty gunned down Yuval Castleman at the scene of a terror attack in Jerusalem. Reservist Aviad Frija claimed that he mistakenly identified Castleman as a threat amidst the chaos. The victim, however, had already removed his jacket, thrown his hands in the air, and was calling out in Hebrew.

The details are chilling in their similarity to the circumstances surrounding the shooting of the hostages in Gaza, stripped to the waist, hands in the air, and calling out to the soldiers in Hebrew.

For those who don’t remember, let’s revisit the case of Elor Azaria. There undoubtedly had been incidents of excessive force and unjustified killings by IDF soldiers long before Azaria put a bullet in the head of al-Sharif, and there have been many more such incidents between March 2016 and the present than those listed above.

The media attention and wide public debate sparked by the Azaria case, however, make it a good starting point to illustrate the unbearable lightness of IDF soldiers’ fingers on the trigger and the atmosphere in which the cavalier attitude toward the lives of Palestinians has flourished.

On March 24, 2016, Ramzi Aziz al-Tamimi al-Qasrawi and Abdel Fattah al-Sharif perpetrated a stabbing attack at a military post in Hebron. One soldier was moderately wounded. The soldiers opened fire, killing al-Qasrawi and seriously injuring al-Sharif. Reinforcements arrived shortly after, among them Elor Azaria, a battalion medic.

Video footage from the scene showed that Azaria suddenly walked over to where the wounded al-Sharif was lying, clearly incapacitated, and shot him in the head. In his defense, Azaria claimed that he feared that al-Sharif might be wearing an explosive vest and thought that the critically injured Palestinian was reaching for a knife.

The military court did not accept Azaria’s account of the events and convicted him of manslaughter, sentencing him to 18 months in prison. Gadi Eisenkot, chief of staff at the time, reduced his sentence to 14 months, and an IDF parole board later ordered his early release after only nine months.

Testifying on behalf of Azaria, former Deputy Chief of Staff Uzi Dayan said that all terrorists need to be killed, even if they do not pose an immediate danger. Avigdor Liberman, defense minister at the time of Azaria’s sentencing, said that Israel needs to support its soldiers under all circumstances. Then Education Minister Naftali Bennett said that Azaria should not be sent to prison even if he “made a mistake.” Prime Minister Netanyahu initially condemned the shooting, but later joined Ministers Aryeh Deri, Yisrael Katz, and many others in calling for a pardon.

Polls conducted at the time showed that some 70% of the Israeli public supported a pardon. In a prophetic statement following the verdict, Human Rights Watch urged Israeli officials to “repudiate the shoot-to-kill rhetoric that too many of them have promoted, even when there is no imminent threat of death.”

Following his release, Azaria returned to Hebron, where he received a hero’s welcome from throngs of settlers who danced joyously at the site where al-Sharif was slain. He also featured in the election campaign of Deputy Environment Minister Yaron Mazuz in 2019 when he was competing in the Likud primaries. Justifying Azaria’s actions, Mazuz told Channel 12 that Israel must not tie the hands of its soldiers and “neuter them when facing vile murderers.”

In the years since the Azaria trial, the notion that it is legitimate for soldiers or armed civilians to seal the fate of terrorists and suspected terrorists and alleged terrorists and suspicious persons on the spot has gained such acceptance that one wonders whether Azaria would even have been tried today. In the Castleman case, the ensuing uproar and calls for a thorough investigation note that he was yelling “Don’t shoot. I’m Jewish.” This, of course, suggests that there may be less of an issue with shooting an assailant who is in the process of surrendering if the suspect in question is not a Jew.

The IDF’s rules of engagement allow soldiers to shoot to kill in life-threatening situations, but the definition of what constitutes such a situation is often loosely interpreted. Minister Ben Gvir, who has been busily handing out weapons left and right and encouraging civilians not to hesitate to use them, has made it clear that even stone-throwing warrants a death sentence.

Also influencing decisions to open fire is the increasingly widespread view that the threat is embodied in the terrorist himself, making him a legitimate target even when incapacitated. In a Ynet article on the Golani Brigade, commander Yair Plai boasted that “we won’t rest till every terrorist is dead.” Not captured. Dead.

And so we return to the horrific events of December 15 described by Avi Shamriz, father of Alon, as “an execution.” Indeed, what other description can be applied to the shooting of anyone who is unarmed and carrying a white flag?

The fact that Chief of Staff Herzi Halevi had to explain to his troops this elementary principle known to every child who ever played cops and robbers is the clearest evidence of the depths into which “the most moral army in the world” has sunk.

The responsibility for the tragedy, however, lies not only with the soldiers who pulled the trigger but with the government officials, military brass, and all those who have encouraged them to shoot first and ask questions later, if ever.

About the Author
Susie Becher is Managing Editor of the Palestine-Israel Journal, a collaborative quarterly published in Jerusalem; is Communications Director of the Policy Working Group, a team of senior academics, former diplomats, human rights defenders, and media experts who advocate for an end to the occupation and a resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict; and serves on the Steering Committee of Zulat, an activist think tank advocating for human rights and equality in Israel.
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