The Israeli army on Tuesday said a soldier who shot a Palestinian suspect near the Gaza border in a recently circulated video behaved appropriately, but criticized the soldier who filmed and cheered the incident for violating military values.
The army said the cameraman, who was not part of the unit serving on the border and was not stationed at the same position, would face a disciplinary hearing. The initial result of the investigation into the video has been handed over to the Military Advocate General Corps, which will consider criminal charges.
According to the army’s initial investigation, the video was filmed on December 22 during a violent demonstration along the Gaza border, near the Israeli community of Kibbutz Kissufim.
The army said the Palestinian who was shot was one of the people “suspected of organizing and leading” the violence along the border, which included the throwing of rocks and Molotov cocktails.
The military maintained that the sharpshooter behaved appropriately, firing one bullet as the suspect approached the fence after ignoring warnings and calls to halt. The army also refuted a claim heard in the video that the suspect was shot in the head, saying he was wounded in the leg.
The video came to light on Monday, leading Israel’s national television broadcast and prompting a wave of condemnations across the political spectrum, as well as some justification and support for the soldiers featured in it.
On Tuesday, Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman also expressed his support for the sniper, while criticizing the soldier who filmed the event.
“The sniper deserves an honor and the cameraman a demerit,” he said at an event in northern Israel.
In the footage, the cameraman can be heard cheering as the Palestinian is shot, something the army said “does not fit with the spirit and degree of restraint expected of IDF soldiers.”
The army reportedly debriefed one of the soldiers who featured in the clip.
Though he criticized the video, Liberman also appeared to defend the cheering heard in it, saying it was inappropriate but somewhat understandable for soldiers in stressful situations.
“The IDF is the most moral army in the world, but when you are on the front lines and tense sometimes you let out some tension, so you can understand this,” he added, calling IDF troops “the best of the Israeli people.”
Earlier Tuesday, Education Minister Naftali Bennett defended the soldiers in the video and pushed back at their critics.
“Anyone who was ever in the field knows that to sit in Tel Aviv or in studios and judge the expressions of IDF soldiers guarding the borders isn’t serious,” Bennett, who heads the right-wing Jewish Home party, told Army Radio Tuesday morning.
“We are starting to judge soldiers based on the quality of their speech and whether it sounds nice or not?” he said. “Really?”
Expressing his support for the soldiers, Bennett blasted critics for judging their “inelegant” speech rather than their actions, and noted IDF troops’ role in defending Israel’s borders.
He later tweeted, “IDF soldiers protect our lives. We protect them. [We] don’t abandon soldiers.”
Officials from across the Israeli political spectrum on Monday condemned the video. While most also expressed confidence that the army would investigate the incident, human rights groups claimed dozens of similar shootings have recently taken place. “The IDF is a moral army, but immoral actions may be committed within it,” said MK Nachman Shai of the left-wing Zionist Union party. “This incident and all incidents require an investigation. The battle isn’t just between us and Hamas; it is also for ourselves, for our values and for the identity of Israel society.”
In the video, which was apparently filmed through a scope or binoculars, soldiers can be heard discussing the shot ahead of time, as the sniper trains his rifle on the suspect, who is seen standing next to another Palestinian crouching in front of a roll of barbed wire, several meters away from the security fence.
The Palestinian does not appear to be armed and is not seen throwing rocks or firebombs at the security fence or the Israeli troops on the other side.
“The moment he stops, you drop him. Do you have a bullet in the chamber? Are you [trained] on him?” the commander is heard asking in the footage.
The sharpshooter can then be heard saying he cannot fire because his shot is blocked by the rolls of barbed wire along the security fence.
At one point, the sniper says he is ready to fire, but his commander tells him to wait. “There’s a little kid,” the commander says.
One soldier, apparently the one filming the incident, calls over a friend a moment before the gunshot is heard and the Palestinian is seen crumpling to the ground.
“Whoa! What a video! YES! Son of a bitch. What a video! Look they’re running to evacuate him,” the photographer enthuses.
“Of course I filmed it,” he adds, responding to a question.
Another soldier is then heard saying, “Whoa, [he] hit him in the head.”
As a group of Palestinians can be seen carrying the injured man away, the photographer adds, “What a legendary video.”
Reporting on the video clip, which was the lead item on Israel’s national news broadcasts on Monday evening, TV correspondents said it was not clear whether the Palestinian suspect had been injured or killed.
Echoing Bennett, Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan (Likud) expressed support on Tuesday for Israeli troops and dismissed the uproar over the video.
“I’m unable to comprehend what isn’t okay in the video. You can’t take a human reaction — no matter how over-the-top — from a battlefield and judge it from the armchairs in Tel Aviv,” he told Israel Radio.
While saying such a video “shouldn’t exist,” Science Minister Ofir Akunis (Likud) urged against rushing to judgment over the incident.
“The Palestinian who approached the border didn’t come to ask for peace,” he told Israel Radio.
The focus on the video came just a day after the IDF General Staff announced that it was launching an investigation into the military’s response to a series of violent protests along the Gaza border in recent days, which have so far resulted in the deaths of some 30 Palestinians.
Border incidents in the past two weeks have included two massive demonstrations in which tens of thousands of Palestinians took part.
The protests were part of a planned six-week “March of Return” that is due to end in mid-May with both “Nakba Day,” marking the displacement of Arabs after Israel’s creation, and the relocation of the US embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem — a plan that has infuriated Palestinian leaders.
Palestinian activists have insisted the protests were civilian-led and nonviolent, while Israel has said they were often used as cover for attempts at violence against Israeli troops and breaches of the border. The IDF says the marches are a new tactic by Hamas, which rules Gaza, to conduct terror operations in the confusion of the demonstrations.
The army said that it had spotted multiple attempts by terrorists to plant explosive devices along the Gaza border, a shooting attack on IDF troops by two well-armed Palestinian men dispatched by Hamas, as well as an attempted infiltration by a gunman wearing a suicide bomb vest. Hamas, a terror group that seeks to destroy Israel, has acknowledged several of its operatives were among the Palestinian dead. Hamas leaders have said the ultimate goal of the protests is to erase the border and liberate Palestine.