Revisiting the IDF’s rules of engagement, in light of Hebron shooting
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Revisiting the IDF’s rules of engagement, in light of Hebron shooting

Debate over video showing soldier killing disarmed Palestinian centers around army's open-fire protocols -- but what are they?

Judah Ari Gross is The Times of Israel's military correspondent.

File: Israeli security forces gather at the site where a Palestinian stabbed an Israeli near the Tomb of the Patriarchs in Hebron, on December 7, 2015. (AFP/Hazem Bader)
File: Israeli security forces gather at the site where a Palestinian stabbed an Israeli near the Tomb of the Patriarchs in Hebron, on December 7, 2015. (AFP/Hazem Bader)

On Thursday, an IDF soldier was caught on film shooting Palestinian assailant Abd al-Fattah Yusri al-Sharif in the head, more than 10 minutes after the stabber had already been shot, wounded and disarmed.

Al-Sharif and another man, Ramzi Aziz al-Qasrawi, had attacked a soldier and an officer near the Tel Rumeida neighbor of Hebron. The pair managed to stab the soldier in the shoulder and arm, before the officer was able to shoot the two attackers. Al-Qasrawi was killed, but al-Sharif remained alive.

Six minutes later, the IDF soldier who is now in custody arrived on the scene and approximately five minutes later he was filmed shooting an apparently incapacitated al-Sharif in the head.

The soldier, speaking through his attorneys, claimed he was concerned the Palestinian was wearing an explosive vest that could be used to harm the first responders and other soldiers on the scene.

The incident sparked an intense debate within Israel, with citizens and politicians coming out fiercely against and in support of the soldier.

The arguments centered mainly around one topic: the army’s open-fire protocols, the rules that determine when a soldier is required to shoot someone and how.

Israeli security forces’ rules of engagement have been a controversial issue since the start of the ongoing wave of terror — and indeed since the 1984 Bus 300 affair, in which Shin Bet officers executed two Palestinian terrorists after they had already been captured and arrested.

To some, the soldier in Hebron had grossly violated those rules of engagement, shooting a disarmed and disabled Palestinian assailant many minutes after the initial attack and after the attacker had been checked for additional weapons.

To others, the soldier had abided by the rules of engagement as he feared the assailant could still carry out a secondary attack.

And some extreme Israelis claimed the soldier had instead abided by a starkly different set of rules, ones that require anyone who attacks an Israeli to get a bullet in the head.

The IDF launched an investigation into the incident immediately, and a day later the army prosecutor revealed he was considering murder charges against the unnamed soldier. On Tuesday, judges extended the suspect’s remand for a second time to allow the Military Police more time to complete their investigation.

An IDF soldier who was filmed shooting a disarmed Palestinian assailant in the head attends a hearing in his case at a military court near Kiryat Malachi on March 29, 2016 (POOL/Flash90)
An IDF soldier who was filmed shooting a disarmed Palestinian assailant in the head attends a hearing in his case at a military court near Kiryat Malachi on March 29, 2016 (POOL/Flash90)

Almost immediately, the shooting incident dominated the Israeli national conversation. The IDF chief of staff, defense minister, prime minister and human rights groups all came out against the shooting and the shooter, whose name has been withheld by court order.

“What happened in Hebron doesn’t represent the values of the IDF,” Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said in a statement on Thursday.

“The law on this topic is clear: Shooting to kill is allowed only in cases where there is threat to the lives of others,” the left-wing B’Tselem organization, which released the initial video of the soldier, said in a statement after the fact.

This case, B’Tselem said, was an “execution in the street, without law and without trial.”

Almost as quickly, Education Minister Naftali Bennett, several other members of Knesset and representatives from the settler community, came out strongly in support of the soldier, many of them saying they believed he had feared the Palestinian assailant had an explosive device.

Initially, both groups pointed to the army’s rules of engagement as the source of their position on the incident.

In October, at the start of the ongoing wave of terror, The Times of Israel discussed these rules of engagement with Amichai Cohen, a research fellow at the Israel Institute for Democracy and dean of the Faculty of Law at Ono Academic College.

The rules of engagement

In truth, there are two sets of these open fire regulations, one for wartime, the other in a law enforcement situation, Cohen said at the time.

“In a war situation, you shoot at the enemy in order to kill him. In a law enforcement situation, you are allowed to shoot only when there is a threat and, even then, only in order to stop them,” Cohen said. “You might call this the ‘war on terror,’ but legally speaking, this is law enforcement.”

Prof. Amichai Cohen, a research fellow at the Israel Democracy Institute and dean of the Faculty of Law at Ono Academic College. (Courtesy)
Prof. Amichai Cohen, a research fellow at the Israel Democracy Institute and dean of the Faculty of Law at Ono Academic College. (Courtesy)

Simply put, the rules of engagement in law enforcement are: The army requires soldiers to use as much force as necessary to neutralize a threat. But once that person or those people are deemed no longer a danger, no additional force is to be used.

That may sound straightforward, but one of the main characteristics of these rules is how open they are to interpretation, in order to “give responses to different kinds of situations,” Cohen said.

The army’s rules of engagement are therefore not a black-and-white, “if this, then that” series of situations in which soldiers or police officers are allowed to open fire. Instead, they are a general principle.

“The rule is to use the minimum force required” to neutralize the threat, Cohen said, adding that from a legal perspective, it is “hard to say what exactly that means in the field.”

For those who spoke out against the soldier, the shooting represented a grave breach of those rules. From their perspective, the Palestinian assailant had already been shot by another soldier and had his weapon taken away. As such, he presented no threat, and the gunshot to the head was unnecessary and therefore illegal.

On the other hand, the soldier’s attorneys and supporters — including a minister and several other members of Knesset — quickly claimed he had upheld the army’s protocols and acted only out of self-defense.

“He operated under the rules of engagement orders he received,” the soldier’s attorney, Ilan Katz, said on Friday.

The soldier said he believed the assailant had an explosive vest hidden under his clothes and feared he would use it to harm the soldiers and medics surrounding him. The shot to the head, therefore, was an attempt to prevent a secondary attack, the lawyers claimed.

However, on Saturday and again on Tuesday, IDF officials claimed the assailant had indeed already been checked for an explosive.

Moreover, even if the assailant had an explosive device, shooting him would not have been the appropriate course of action as that ran the risk of setting off the bomb and injuring the soldiers standing a few feet away, military officials added.

In light of that information, the soldier’s political supporters, who come overwhelmingly from right-wing parties, have shifted their position slightly and instead claimed he had intended to abide by the rules of engagement.

File: Education Minister Naftali Bennett speaks at a bible study seminar at Herzog College in the West Bank settlement of Alon Shvut on July 20, 2015. (Gershon Elinson/Flash90)
File: Education Minister Naftali Bennett speaks at a bible study seminar at Herzog College in the West Bank settlement of Alon Shvut on July 20, 2015. (Gershon Elinson/Flash90)

“Perhaps the soldier made a mistake, perhaps he did not,” Bennett wrote in a Facebook post after additional details of the case came to light.

“The mother of a terrorist should cry, not a Jewish mother,” Likud MK Oren Hazan said after the attack. “A combat solider, a hero-medic neutralized a murderer and said, ‘There was a fear that he would blow himself up with an explosive device.’ I believe him. Period.”

Whether that fear was justified will eventually be decided by the courts. The requirement is what a “reasonable person” in that situation would think, Cohen said.

A third option

On Sunday, testimony came out that the soldier had also reportedly told another member of his unit that the Palestinian assailant “deserved to die” before the shooting and then reiterated that statement after the fact to his commander.

In light of that testimony, some supporters of the soldier shifted the conversation from whether the soldier had followed the IDF’s rules of engagement to the more meta-question of whether the IDF’s rules of engagement are correct.

Perhaps the soldier had indeed executed the Palestinian, this third group of supporters said, and it’s good that he did.

“A terrorist who plans to carry out a murderous attack against the citizens of Israel and its security forces needs to know that he will not make it home alive and will not enter a prison,” according to an online petition in support of the soldier.

Over 56,000 people have signed the petition, which calls for awarding the soldier the IDF’s top three awards for heroism, valor and distinguished service.

The head of the West Bank Beit Aryeh regional council, Avi Na’im, also jumped to defend the soldier, in accordance with this third way of thinking. “A bullet to the head — that’s the rule!” Na’im wrote.

“Regarding the line that he said, ‘A terrorist who stabs one of our friends needs to die,’ there is nothing more right than that!” Na’im said.

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