Akunis: Palestinian at border 'didn't come to ask for peace'

Bennett defends soldiers filmed cheering Gazan’s shooting

Cabinet ministers lash critics ‘in Tel Aviv’ after video emerges of apparently unarmed Palestinian shot by IDF sniper

Education Minister Naftali Bennett speaks to press before the weekly cabinet meeting at the Prime Minister's Office in Jerusalem on March 25, 2018. (Marc Israel Sellem/Pool/Flash90)
Education Minister Naftali Bennett speaks to press before the weekly cabinet meeting at the Prime Minister's Office in Jerusalem on March 25, 2018. (Marc Israel Sellem/Pool/Flash90)

Education Minister Naftali Bennett defended soldiers who have come under fire after appearing to celebrate the shooting of a Palestinian near the Gaza border fence in a video that surfaced Monday.

“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?”

The Israeli military on Monday said it was investigating the video, which has drawn condemnation across the political spectrum.

After a preliminary check, the IDF said on Monday evening that the incident likely occurred several months ago. “In regards to the video currently circulating, the event depicted apparently occurred a number of months ago. The incident is being reviewed and will be thoroughly investigated,” it said.

It has reportedly debriefed one of the soldiers who featured in the clip.

Footage filmed through a scope, publicized on April 9, 2018, that appears to show the moment before an Israeli sniper shoots a Palestinian who approached the Gaza security fence during a protest along the border. (Screen capture)

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.”

Israeli snipers prepare for massive protests by Palestinians in Gaza and the potential for demonstrators to try to breach the security fence on March 30, 2018. (Israel Defense Forces)

In the video, which was apparently filmed through a scope or binoculars, the 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.

‘Armchair critics’

Echoing Bennett, Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan (Likud) expressed support on Tuesday for Israeli troops and dismissed the uproar over the video.

Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan at a Likud party conference in Lod on December 31, 2017. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)

“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 judgement over the incident.

“The Palestinian who approached the border didn’t come to ask for peace,” he told Israel Radio.

Ofir Akunis (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

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 men wave their national flags as smoke billows from tires burned by Gazans at the Israel-Gaza border during a protest, east of Gaza City in the Gaza Strip, on April 6, 2018. (AFP Photo/Mahmud Hams)

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 the 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.

Judah Ari Gross contributed to this report.

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