Netanyahu, Bennett trade barbs over Hebron shooting
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Netanyahu, Bennett trade barbs over Hebron shooting

Education minister demands cabinet support soldier indicted for murder; ministers accuse him of seeking 'political capital'

Education Minister Naftali Bennett speaks to reporters before the weekly cabinet meeting in Jerusalem on Sunday, March 27, 2016. (Marc Israel Sellem/Pool)
Education Minister Naftali Bennett speaks to reporters before the weekly cabinet meeting in Jerusalem on Sunday, March 27, 2016. (Marc Israel Sellem/Pool)

In a stormy cabinet session Sunday, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu angrily defended the army’s investigation into an alleged murder by an IDF soldier who shot and killed a wounded Palestinian assailant in Hebron on Thursday, even as he faced fierce criticism from Education Minister Naftali Bennett over the case.

On Thursday, two Palestinians carried out a stabbing attack against IDF soldiers in Hebron, wounding one soldier before they were shot by others. One assailant was killed on the spot, while the other was wounded. Footage emerged from the incident on Friday that showed an IDF soldier shooting the second Palestinian in the head several minutes later. Army prosecutors have charged the soldier with murder at the Jaffa Military Court.

Addressing the weekly cabinet meeting in Jerusalem late Sunday morning, Netanyahu slammed attempts to “question the morality” of the IDF.

“IDF soldiers, our children, hold themselves to the highest moral standards, even as they bravely battle bloodthirsty murderers in difficult operational conditions. I am certain that in every case, including in this one, the [army’s] investigation is taking all these conditions, as well as others, into account,” he said. “We must all support the chief of staff, the Israel Defense Forces and our soldiers who preserve our security.”

Netanyahu’s comments struck a far less strident tone on the case than a statement he released Thursday, when he insisted that “what happened in Hebron doesn’t represent the values of the IDF.”

During Sunday’s closed-door cabinet meeting, minutes after delivering his statement, Netanyahu faced angry criticism from his right flank, according to real-time leaks.

“We can’t decide the soldier’s fate. It’s not okay that the defense establishment is briefing [reporters] against him while the investigation is ongoing, and it’s ridiculous that he’s charged with murder,” Education Minister Bennett (head of the Orthodox-nationalist Jewish Home) announced, drawing angry retorts from other ministers. He appeared to be referring to details of the investigation that appeared in the Israeli media earlier in the day.

An IDF soldier loading his weapon before he appears to shoot an unarmed, prone Palestinian assailant in the head following a stabbing attack in Hebron on March 24, 2016. (Screen capture: B'Tselem)
An IDF soldier loading his weapon before he appears to shoot an unarmed, supine Palestinian assailant in the head following a stabbing attack in Hebron on March 24, 2016. (Screen capture: B’Tselem)

Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan interrupted Bennett, saying: “Everyone here supports the IDF, but you’re trying to make political capital from this. If you have a problem with the indictment and you think ministers should intervene, take it up with the justice minister. If you have trouble reaching her, I can help.” (Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked hails from Bennett’s own Jewish Home party.)

Interior Minister Aryeh Deri also criticized Bennett, according to the leaks from the meeting, telling the ministers that “there is a Palestinian campaign to depict the IDF as murderers, and we have to support the army and the independent investigation that it is conducting.

“I might now be depicted as a leftist who doesn’t defend our soldiers, and you as someone who fights for them,” Deri told Bennett, “but it’s a lie. We all support our soldiers, and we must not let this become political.”

According to an account (Hebrew link) by Israel Radio’s Ido Benbaji, Deri’s words were followed by shouting.

Bennett was then heard telling Netanyahu, “We have to support our soldiers.”

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu leads the weekly cabinet meeting at his office in Jerusalem on Sunday, March 27, 2016 (Marc Israel Sellem/POOL)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu leads the weekly cabinet meeting at his office in Jerusalem on Sunday, March 27, 2016 (Marc Israel Sellem/POOL)

The prime minister retorted, “Don’t you lecture me on ethics. I have commanded and supported soldiers more than you. Politics aren’t everything.”

Earlier Sunday, Bennett accused “senior politicians” of “dancing to the tune of B’Tselem,” the left-wing rights group that publicized one of the videos of the incident.

Bennett acknowledged that the soldier may have “misjudged” the situation by believing himself to be in danger when he wasn’t, but insisted that did not make him a murderer. Speaking to Israel Radio on Sunday, he said the soldier deserved to have his trial before being ruled guilty by political leaders.

He also called the murder indictment “hysterical,” and promised to use his power as a member of the security cabinet to ensure the soldier receives a fair trial.

Bennett protested the army’s own publicizing of the findings of its investigation, saying it was inappropriate for the IDF’s internal justice system to be briefing the media about a pending case.

Among the army’s findings, the soldier under indictment allegedly spoke out in favor of killing the surviving stabber before the shooting, and told his commanders afterward that the Palestinian assailant deserved to die.

The soldier’s remand was extended until Tuesday by the Jaffa Military Court. Army officials insisted over the weekend that the army stands by soldiers who “make mistakes” that amount to reasonable misjudgments of combat situations. But the commanders in the field, including the suspect’s own company and battalion commanders, judged his actions to have crossed the line of permissible conduct.

The soldier’s attorney on Sunday said he denied the reported comments. “Justice is done in court, not in the media,” the attorney insisted.

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