Facing a firestorm of criticism from far-right politicians, the IDF released new details over the weekend about the investigation into the shooting death of a Palestinian stabber in Hebron on Thursday.
The Palestinian was one of two men who attacked troops near the Tel Rumeida neighborhood in Hebron, wounding one soldier. The two assailants were shot; one was killed on the spot, the other shot to death later.
Among the army’s findings, the soldier allegedly said the surviving Palestinian stabber should be killed before he shot him, and told his commanders afterward that the assailant had deserved to die.
The case sparked controversy after a video surfaced online showing the soldier shooting the apparently disarmed, wounded and supine Palestinian stabber in the head.
According to a murder indictment filed Friday by military prosecutors in the Jaffa Military Court, the wounded assailant was not a threat to troops when he was killed.
Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Friday criticized the soldier’s actions as immoral and in contravention of the army’s rules of engagement and ethical code.
Supporters of the soldier, including his family and far-right activists, have slammed those statements as a public “lynching.”
“Our son is not the terrorist. Our son is the soldier,” one family member told reporters over the weekend.
In response to the growing chorus of criticism, the army released some of the findings of its internal investigation.
Among the findings was the testimony of another soldier in the unit according to which the suspect told him, before opening fire, that the attacker “‘deserved to die; he stabbed a friend of mine.'”
The soldier who heard the comment said he replied that their wounded comrade, who was stabbed by the Palestinian man minutes earlier, was only lightly wounded and would be fine.
Several minutes later, without consulting with his commanders, the suspect loaded a bullet into the chamber of his assault rifle and, in front of his comrades, shot the Palestinian in the head.
(Video contains graphic images)
The suspect has argued that he believed the Palestinian likely had a suicide bomb belt on him. One video from the scene shows civilian medics and officers warning soldiers to assume the Palestinian had explosives on him, and to stay away from him until a sapper arrives.
Army officials insisted over the weekend that the army stands by soldiers who “make mistakes” that amount to reasonable misjudgments of combat situations. But the commanders in the field, including the suspect’s own company and battalion commanders, judged his actions to have crossed the line of permissible conduct.
Immediately after the shooting, the company commander conducted an inquiry during which the soldier reportedly told him that the assailant “deserved to die,” the army said. The battalion commander then filed a report that characterized the incident as “irregular” and deserving of an investigation.
Those steps took place before any video of the incident went public, the army revealed.
IDF officials dismissed the suicide-bomber defense, noting that shooting a bomber could trigger the explosives. Army regulations state that when there is reason to suspect an otherwise incapacitated attacker is carrying an explosive, soldiers are supposed to withdraw to a safe perimeter and call in sappers.
According to investigators, a platoon commander had already taken upon himself to check the Palestinian man for explosives before the soldier arrived at the scene, in order to ensure that rescuers could operate safely in the area.
In videos of the incident, IDF soldiers are seen standing as close as two meters from the wounded Palestinian when the shot is fired.
Much of the case will focus on what the soldier believed when he fired the shot. Under Israeli military law, soldiers are not criminally liable for “reasonable” mistakes, even if these result — as they often do in military situations — in loss of life. If the military court finds his claim to have feared for his life reasonable, he may escape criminal sanction, and will be dealt with by his commanders in a disciplinary hearing. If the court finds his claim unreasonable, or is faced with evidence that he did not believe he was in danger, the shooting becomes an act of murder.
Responses to the shooting have fallen along political lines, with far-right politicians continuing to defend the soldier on Sunday.
Education Minister Naftali Bennett, chair of the Jewish Home party, charged “senior politicians” with “dancing to the tune of B’Tselem,” the left-wing rights group whose Palestinian cameraman filmed one of the videos of the incident.
Bennett acknowledged that the soldier may have “misjudged” the situation by believing himself to be in danger when he wasn’t, but insisted he was no murderer. Speaking to Israel Radio on Sunday, he said the soldier deserved to have his trial before being ruled guilty by political leaders.
He also called the murder indictment “hysterical,” and promised to use his power as a member of the security cabinet to ensure the soldier received a fair trial.
Bennett protested the army’s own publicizing of the findings of its investigation, saying it was inappropriate for the IDF’s internal justice system to be briefing media about a pending case.
Yisrael Beytenu party head MK Avigdor Liberman, a former foreign minister, slammed the Netanyahu and Ya’alon for their condemnations of the soldier, saying the Likud leaders “have become presenters” for B’Tselem and that their comments “hurt the soldier’s chances to receive a fair investigation rather than a media lynching.”
He said that he had sought to visit the jailed soldier in military prison but had been rebuffed by the Defense Ministry.
“Yesterday, together with MK Oded Forer, I asked for permission to visit the soldier who shot the terrorist,” Liberman wrote on Facebook Sunday.
“The Defense Ministry refused to allow the meeting,” he said. “I wanted to visit the soldier, to hear him, to clarify that this ganging up on him is inappropriate, and that he has supporters, elected leaders among them.”
The incident has also reportedly brought personal scrutiny and threats to both the B’Tselem stringer who filmed the incident and the family of the IDF soldier.
Far-right Israeli activists on Saturday night filed a police complaint against the Palestinian stringer, accusing him of conspiring with the stabbers.
Attorney Itamar Ben Gvir and Bentzi Gopstein, leader of the anti-Arab Lehava organization, said that the stringer, Emad abu-Shamsiyah, was on site to film the goings-on just minutes after two Palestinians carried out a stabbing attack there.
“It is worth noting that this was not the first time in which activists of the radical left-wing group B’Tselem are in the right place as far as they are concerned, and at the right time as far as they are concerned,” Ben Gvir said. “It would be naïve to think this is a coincidence. It would be appropriate to examine whether there is some coordination between different people carrying out the attacks and those found in the same place at precisely the same time.”
Meanwhile, left-wing activists found the soldier’s Facebook page over the weekend and published his personal details online. According to Israel Radio, the private phone number of the soldier’s father has since been posted on websites affiliated with Hamas.
Israel Police were examining a complaint by the soldier’s family saying that they received death threats on the phone. Reports quoted the family as saying a man speaking in an Arabic accent called the family’s home on Saturday and threatened: “You’re next.”
On Saturday evening, the soldier’s sister said the State of Israel “stabbed him in the back and abandoned him.”
She said the clip of the incident “presents a one-sided version of events, and from that moment on, we hear the leaders of the country judging him, delivering their verdict and all that’s left is to execute him without even letting him defend himself.”
Also Saturday, dozens of people protested outside the Tzrifin army base where the soldier is under arrest and called for his release. Among the protesters were combat soldiers and officers in mandatory and reserve service, as well as the mothers of combat soldiers in mandatory service, Israel Radio reported.