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Near impunity for IDF soldiers who kill Palestinians

The IDF and Border Police killed three more Palestinians last week. Despite the IDF’s ‘knife in the back’ legend that it betrays its own, its combat soldiers have little reason to fear its ‘justice’ system.

By Yesh Din, written by Yossi Gurvitz

Illustration: Soldier aiming grenade launcher directly at demonstrator, Nabi Saleh (Yotam Ronen / ActiveStills)

Illustrative photo. (Yotam Ronen / ActiveStills)

Anyone following the Israeli morning radio broadcasts is already accustomed to the mantra-like report of IDF soldiers arresting “wanted persons” during the night, and that they were “turned over for interrogation by the security forces.” Behind this short line, supplied to the reporters by the IDF Spokesman on the condition that they broadcast “out of their own mouths,” without attribution, stand the nightly operations the IDF carries deep in Palestinian-controlled territory.

At the beginning of last week, one of these operations went awry, and it ended with three dead Palestinians and more than a dozen wounded. As usual in such cases, the army was quick to claim that “the soldiers’ lives were in danger.”

We don’t know exactly what took place in Qalandiya Camp early last Monday morning, but this incident ought to be investigated, and investigated thoroughly – as in any case when a person is killed by security forces. When someone claims time and time again that he is in mortal danger, yet somehow keeps dodging it leaving bodies behind, one must wonder whether this isn’t a tactic intended to reduce judicial and media pressure.

There’s a long list of cases showing this is indeed the trend: my favorite example took place in March 2010 near Awarta. The facts are that when the smoke cleared there were two dead Palestinians lying on the ground. The soldiers claimed they were attacked by pitchfork-wielding Palestinians. That was also the first IDF Spokesman version: a terror attack was averted. Following an investigation, the soldiers were forced to admit (Hebrew) that the pitchfork was left on the ground. They claimed, however, that the force commander “felt in danger” after hearing one of the Palestinians “mumbling a prayer,” and hence he opened fire. One of the Palestinians, he claimed, tried to attack him with a bottle; the other, he said, tried to enter Palestinian mythology by coming at him, in a scene reminiscent of McGyver, with a syringe (!).

None of the soldiers involved in the Awartha incident was indicted. And as our factsheet shows (see the full document below), this isn’t an isolated case, it’s a method.

Any army, at least any army spending considerable amounts of time out of the marching grounds, will develop the legend made famous by defeated German generals, by the name of “knife in the back”: we could have carried out the mission, the army would claim, but evil politicians handcuffed us. The Israeli version of the legend mutated in the mid-1980s, when soldiers began claiming that “we can’t leave our base without a lawyer,” saying orders, regulations and the fear of a court martial handicapped them.

But, media manipulation aside, there is data. And the data smashes this legend to pieces. Between the years 2000-2013 the IDF and related forces killed, according to B’Tselem’s data, some 5,000 Palestinians. Some of them, of course, were killed in “normal,” non-suspect military circumstances, but according to B’Tselem’s data at least a quarter of the people killed were not involved in the fighting. We do not have data for the years 2000-2003, and data is also missing for 2010 (the IDF Spokesman who seems to have forgotten it is not the Chief of Staff’s personal PR flack but rather a public servant, refused to provide data for that year); but between 2003-2012, 179 cases were opened against soldiers suspected of the homicide of Palestinians. Abandoning the legal norm upheld until then, the Military Judge Advocate ordered at the beginning of the Second Intifada that no investigations of killings are to be held unless he specifically ordered otherwise. This is a self-sustaining system: when homicide is not investigated – and in the Western judicial tradition, which Israel wants to belong to, every killing by the authorities is investigated – naturally events do not come to the surface on their own volition.

Out of the 179 investigations the army opened, only 16 matured into indictments – and of these, only six ended in convictions related to homicide. Out of these, only one soldier served more than one year in prison: this is Taysir Hayb, who killed British activist Thomas Hurndall without any provocation. Hayb was convicted of manslaughter – not murder – and was sentenced to eight years in prison, which he did not serve in full (Hebrew). It’s important to note that Hayb had two factors against him: firstly, he killed a Western citizen, whose family refused to act as if nothing happened. A British inquest (which Israel, naturally, boycotted) found that Hurnfall was maliciously slain. Secondly, Hayb is not a Jew; he is a Bedouin. I dare to say, and the data backs me, that an ordinary Jewish soldier killing an ordinary Palestinian wouldn’t suffer such bad luck.

For what a court ruled was negligent manslaughter, Captain Zvi Koretzki was sentenced to two months imprisonment. Two officers convicted of negligence, after shooting up a vehicle in which a Palestinian toddler, Muhammad Jawadath, was sitting, and killing him, received, respectively, 30 days imprisonment and a four-month suspended sentence, and a month of work for the military and a four-month suspended sentence. Such is the price of a Palestinian toddler’s blood in the military justice system. A first sergeant convicted of “negligent manslaughter” and an attempt to obstruct the investigation received four-and-a-half months imprisonment and a similar suspended sentence; he was also demoted. Another NCO, convicted of “negligent manslaughter” – to wit, firing an assault rifle at the center of the body of a fleeing young man who was not endangering him in any way – was sentenced to seven months imprisonment, with the judge noting that “the effects of the event on the accused and his family were also a consideration when it came to sentencing, as did the operative and symbolic meaning of a demotion” (Hebrew). For in the grand scheme of things, what is the importance of a young Palestinian’s life, when weighed against ” the operative and symbolic meaning of a demotion?”

Yesh Din research department director Ziv Stahl commented on the shooting on Monday morning: “the data shows that practically, the chances of a soldier who killed a Palestinian civilian without justification being investigated, much less punished, are between low and nil. Such a reality encourages illegal use of arms by soldiers even in clearly civilian settings, such as demonstrations.”

Precisely. The “knife in the back” legend of the IDF is bogus. The soldiers do not need a lawyer in the field. They need, rather, officers who will direct them to only fire accurately and only when necessary, as well as a basic training in the ethics of using a firearm. The famous ruling of an Israeli court about a manifestly illegal order speaks of “illegality piercing the eye and upsetting the heart, assuming the eye is not blind and the heart is not blocked or corrupt.”

One suspects the heart is already corrupt.

Written by Yossi Gurvitz in his capacity as a blogger for Yesh Din, Volunteers for Human Rights. A version of this post was first published on Yesh Din’s blog.

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  • COMMENTS

    1. Jan

      And the myth still continues that the Palestinians teach their children to hate. The IDF and the settlers provide the best textbooks for hatred.

      Reply to Comment
    2. XYZ

      Well, Palestinian terrorists, in addition to being honored and rewarded by the official Palestinian Authority for butchering Israeli civilians, are also given a pass by the repeated mass releases of these terrorists by the Israeli government. So what is Yesh Din complaining about? Turnabout is fair play.

      Reply to Comment
      • Empiricon

        Thanks, XYZ, for such a weak argument. First, can you please provide one recent example of “Palestinian terrorists…being honored and rewarded by the official Palestinian Authority”? Also, what you are arguing is that governments need act no better than the worst criminal. Such is your ideal for “the beacon of freedom” in the Middle East. Again, thank you for making the morality of Zionism all so clear.

        Reply to Comment
    3. Well, so much for the ‘Purity of Arms’.
      Zionism “isn’t an isolated case, it’s a method”. When will the world open its history books?

      Reply to Comment
    4. Danny

      The best proof for the dictum “Zionism = Racism” can be readily found in IDF action in the occupied territories in the last twenty years.

      In this time frame many thousands of Palestinians have been killed, many of them innocent bystanders, and I have yet to hear of even a single IDF soldier who was ever arrested on murder charges.

      On the other hand, every week the IDF arrests dozens of Palestinian boys on mere suspicions of stone-throwing.

      If that’s not racism, I don’t know what is.

      Reply to Comment
      • It’s not racism. It’s a technocratic method of ethnic cleansing without losing the support of the economic partners. The only reason the Zionists signed the partion plan was that they wanted to be part of the United Nations. When that was done they could ignore Resolution 194 and all subsequent resolutions accusing them of war crimes, racism and crimes against humanity.
        Corrupted by decades of EU support and American money, Israel has become an arrogant zealot with nukes.

        Reply to Comment
    5. “soldiers do not need a lawyer in the field. They need, rather, officers who will direct them to only fire accurately and only when necessary, as well as a basic training in the ethics of using a firearm.” : Local command and control–IDF careerists, not conscripts who just want to serve their time and go home–should be as liable as any trigger finger; this would partially annul the protect or innocent young logic as well as provide real incentive to train these young effectively–as well as said C and C to take care in deployment and engagement orders.

      The IDF and its military courts still see themselves as fighting the second Intifada. The bombings have stopped, and this is seen as consequent of the ongoing campaign. The more difficult empirical question is whether and how things may have changed on the Palestinian ground. I have tried to advocate the view that social, relatively nonviolent, resistance may be evidence that something is indeed different on that ground. But such inquiry involves risk, and the second Intifada campaign was and is about the removal of all risk. But if you are fighting something no longer as it was, you may as well be creating something unpleasant for the future. The law is meant to force us to examine reality at risk; this is why it is denied in the cases presented. There is fear of law as there is fear of risk.

      Reply to Comment
    6. rsgengland

      Since 2000 to 2013 over 5000 palestinians have been killed.
      During that time there was the second intafada where palestinians were walking onto buses and into restaurants and supermarkets with belts of explosives and ball bearings and nails with the express purpose of killing as many Jewish civilians as possible.
      Hamas also dispatched thousands of missiles targeting Jewish civilians; these rockets and missiles were known to be inaccurate but were aimed indiscriminately at Jewish civilian targets.
      During the intifada and the incursions into Gaza many were killed.
      When groups like Hamas etc hide among Arab civilians while launching their attacks on Jews, civilians will end up being killed on sidelines of military encounters.
      Most of the Palestinian “liberation” groups have never hid their desire to kill as many Jews as possible; irrespective of whether they are civilians or not.
      A state of war exists between many groups like Hamas against Israel; and their stated objective is Israels destruction.
      This war is not about land, it is about the inability of the Arabs to accept a Jewish state in the ‘Arab’ heartland.
      Until the Arabs accept Israels existence as a Jewish state, the war and the death will continue.
      Borders, Refugees, Compensation and anything else you want to add are all red herrings, and anyone with even half a brain knows it.

      Reply to Comment
      • Binyamin

        1. When negotiating the peace treaties with Jordan and Egypt, Israel never demanded that those countries “accept Israel as a Jewish state.” And the same goes for all of negotiations with the Palestinians.

        2. What does “accept Israel as a Jewish state” actually mean? If Marwan Bargouti and the entire Fatah Revolutionary Council put on kippot, crawl to the Kotel (on Israeli Independence Day) and sing Hatikva (in unaccented Hebrew), would that suffice?

        Reply to Comment

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