A group of soldiers filmed last week being forced to retreat under a hail of Palestinian rocks say they were told not to use tear gas and other non-lethal means of crowd dispersion, possibly because the incident was being filmed.
The video was released to the Internet over the weekend, leading to much hand wringing in the IDF, which promised to review its procedures. The film shows what appears to be a humiliating defeat by fully armed IDF soldiers at the hands of a crowd of rock-slinging Palestinians.
Interior Minister Eli Yishai responded to the video by demanding a meeting with Cabinet Secretary Zvi Hauser to review army procedure for dealing with stone-throwing Palestinians.
“In my opinion IDF soldiers should make maximal use of all weapons at their disposal if there is a threat to their lives, and they need to know they will have full support and understanding from all authorities if they have to do that,” Yishai wrote in a letter to Hauser.
The troops, from a company of combat engineers, told Maariv that their hands were tied by superiors, leading to the muddled effort to contain the rioting crowd without provoking further violence. The film showed soldiers first charging toward dozens of Palestinians but then abruptly turning and fleeing under a hail of hurled stones. Three soldiers were injured, with one suffering a broken hand.
The soldiers speculated that the presence of a large number of press photographers in the area persuaded commanding officers to deny permission.
“There are always a lot of photographers there, but this time there were even more and apparently in order to prevent certain images they decided to endanger us instead,” a soldier said of his commanders in the Maariv report.
The clash happened in a Palestinian town that has gained a reputation in recent months for being a hotbed of protest and violence, over a closed road that forces local residents to make a significant detour when travelling to Nablus. IDF soldiers and border police are routinely pelted with stones and face burning tires and molotov cokctails.
Last Friday, the patrol of eight soldiers entered Kfar Qadum and encountered stone-throwing Palestinians. Fellow soldiers from the same unit told Maariv there were more protesters than usual and a force of Border Police tried to disperse the crowd with tear gas. However, rather than dispelling the Palestinians, the noxious gas blew into the faces of the soldiers.
As the situation deteriorated, the soldiers requested by radio permission from commanding officers to employ their own crowd dispersal equipment that included tear gas and stun grenades. However, the permission was denied.
“It created a situation in which there is nothing available to deal with the Palestinians,” one of the soldiers said. “They asked again for permission, and again they were told there is no approval.”
Eventually the soldiers made a lackluster charge and subsequent disorderly retreat before the advancing Palestinian protesters.
Since the incident, morale in the unit has been low with soldiers angry at their battalion commander, who they say, is preventing them from dealing with the protesters.
“We know exactly how to deal with the protesters,” one of the soldiers said. “We can easily deal with them, but they won’t let us.”
The IDF spokesman’s officer said the incident is being investigated by senior officers in the field.
Moshe Ya’alon, a deputy prime minister and a former IDF chief of the General Staff, said Monday that commanders and troops certainly “took into account” the possible presence of cameras when grappling with Palestinian and pro-Palestinian confrontations. Commanders were trained to avoid having their troops find themselves in situations where a decontextualized video clip or still photograph would be used against the IDF, he said, but also knew how to behave so that lives were not put at risk.
Kadima party chief and former IDF chief of General Staff Shaul Mofaz said soldiers should not be subject to restrictions in their response to demonstrators. Mofaz said the current climate in
the IDF is one in which soldiers fear that if they take action, they will have to face a court martial for fulfilling their duty.
Mofaz recalled that when he was commander of the 2002 Operation Defensive Shield to defeat terror in the West Bank, that was not the case.
“We didn’t stop to think, ‘What will they say,’” he said. “We got the job done.”
Thirty IDF soldiers died during a month of fighting at the time, and over 490 Palestinians were killed.
“The use of power worked, terror was defeated, and we still have quiet today,” Mofaz said.