Israelis woke to front pages showing a senior IDF officer striking a pro-Palestinian demonstrator in the face with his rifle. Saturday’s incident, which only hit the newsstands Monday morning, is the focus of the Israeli media’s attention and ire.
A demonstrator videoed the incident and uploaded it to YouTube, where it had been viewed over 150,000 times by late morning Monday.
Yedioth Ahronoth and Maariv devote a couple pages to the story, and offer testimonies from both the attacker, Lt. Col. Shalom Eisner, and the victim, Andreas Ayas. Israel Hayom and Haaretz each provide several still photos showing Eisner attacking with his rifle butt.
The incident is not the only story in Monday’s papers. Yedioth leads with a report on loneliness and poverty among the 198,000 Holocaust survivors living in Israel. “A survivor dies every hour,” it screams, in a piece timed three days before Israel marks Holocaust Remembrance Day. “Soon there’ll be no one left to tell the story.”
Maariv leads with ostensible “Disappointment in Israel over the US stance in negotiations with Iran” — picking up on Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s response to the five-week delay before the P5+1 talks resume in late May. The West, said the prime minister, has given Iran “a freebie” to push ahead with its nuclear drive for another few weeks.
Haaretz leads with the errors in a list of potential pro-Palestinian provocateurs that Israel drew up ahead of Sunday’s “flytilla.” More than 400 names were placed on the watch list, it says, without there being concrete information about them, leading to perfectly innocent people being told they would not be allowed to fly into Israel as scheduled.
The “flytilla,” of course, was expected to be Sunday’s big “media battleground” incident — until the incident outside Jericho hit the headlines.
Saturday afternoon, a group of approximately 250 Palestinian and foreign pro-Palestinian activists set out from Kfar Uja, outside Jericho, toward Route 90 on a solidarity bicycle trek. En route, they were stopped by IDF and Border Police forces. The officers, whose mission was to prevent the disruption of traffic on the highway, barred the protesters from continuing any further.
Haaretz says that according to a participant, “we were there just to have fun” and to enjoy the springtime, but the soldiers attacked them unprovoked. Maariv relates Ayas’s version of the story, wherein he claims that the protesters waited for a half hour before trying to continue towards Route 90. “When we started to move, the soldiers reacted aggressively. We didn’t do anything,” Ayas said.
Ayas is quoted by Yedioth Ahronoth saying “We didn’t touch the soldiers, the officer hit me without reason.” He was taken to hospital in Jericho and received two stitches in his lip.
According to Eisner, Ayas attacked him moments before the events shown in the video. By his account, the standoff between the activists and soldiers lasted nearly two hours without incident, until Ayas struck Eisner’s hand with a stick and broke two of his fingers. Eisner retaliated, hitting Ayas in the face with his M-16, and he and his men drove off the demonstrators.
Eisner was promptly suspended by GOC Central Command Brig. Gen. Nitzan Alon, who promptly launched a investigation into the incident. Maariv writes that according to sources in the IDF, he will be relieved of his duty as deputy commander of the Jordan Valley Brigade, and possibly dishonorably discharged from the military.
“It would be difficult to end a chapter like this without a charge sheet and imprisonment,” a military legal source told Maariv.
Top brass and politicians roundly condemned Eisner’s actions. Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Benny Gantz said that he considers this a grave incident, and that it doesn’t reflect the IDF’s values. The investigation, he said, will be addressed “with necessary strictness.”
“Behavior like this is not characteristic of IDF soldiers and officers and has no place in the IDF or the State of Israel,” Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said.
Israel Hayom quotes Meretz chairwoman Zahava Gal-On calling Eisner’s attack a “brutal assault in violation of the IDF’s orders and code of ethics. The military prosecutor must advise the investigators.”
Some politicians, however, commended the officer’s actions. Haaretz quotes MK Michael Ben Ari (National Union) lauding Eisner “for doing what [Netanyahu] and [Public Security Minister] Aharonovich don’t have the brains and courage to do. With radical leftists that taunt soldiers, the only way to deal with them is with a heavy hand.” He further said that the officer had no other choice in the situation but to act as he did.
Israel Hayom quotes MK Zevulun Orlev (Jewish Home) defending Eisner. “Only the decisive action of [Eisner] prevented a group of anarchists from continuing their disturbances,” he said.
“It’s a shame to hear impassioned reactions against a senior army officer who was on a mission of national defense against provocateurs whose sole objective was to disgrace the IDF and the State of Israel.”
The press’s reactions
Israeli columnists unanimously condemned Eisner’s attack on Ayas.
Writing in Haaretz, Amos Harel states, “Eisner will be punished for two crimes: excessive violence and, no less important, for demonstrable stupidity.” But, he continues, “Violence on this level or another is almost standard in dispersing protests in the territories — sometimes against rightists and certainly against Palestinians and their supporters.”
Despite the IDF’s claims that Route 90 is a strategic thoroughfare, “it is hard to understand why 200 cyclists were deemed by the forces in the area to be a threat that justified such a rampage,” Harel says.
In Maariv, Ofer Shelah says that the speed with which the IDF reacted to reports of the Eisner incident is testament to the fact that the army “understands the potential damage of the incident” and realizes that it did not occur in a vacuum. This incident, however, was caused by the fact that IDF troops in the territories “try to protect what is permitted and prohibited in a situation that would destroy any army.”
“For 45 years, the Israeli government has been unwilling to decide what to do with Judea and Samaria,” he writes. “So long as they do not decide, the IDF will remain an occupying force in hostile territory with the eyes of the world upon it. And the occupation, as much as it is tiring to keep saying so, is destructive.”
Yoav Limor says in Israel Hayom that images like those shown in the YouTube clip with Eisner, “are the dreams of Israel haters.” When it boils down to it, he says, ”Nobody cares about rocks or Molotov cocktails thrown at army jeeps, but an Israeli officer hitting or abusing is always a hot commodity.”
“The role of the IDF is to win wars as well as public opinion, and yesterday the IDF lost — in a big way,” Limor says. On a battlefield where YouTube videos are ammunition against Israel, he asserts, there is no place in the IDF for an officer responsible for such a shameful loss.