When video emerged last week of an Israeli soldier apparently shooting a wounded Palestinian assailant in the head, killing him instantly, the condemnation was almost instantaneous—both from within and without Israel.
The unidentified soldier who fired the shot was charged with murder. The army spoke out against the act. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said it did not “represent the values of the Israeli Defense Forces.” Palestinian officials and many ordinary Israelis joined the chorus of revulsion over what appeared to many to be a gratuitous act of vengeance.
FOR THE RECORD
April 1, 2:23 p.m.: Israeli soldier: An article in the April 1 A section described a Palestinian who was killed by an Israeli soldier as a protester. He should have been described as an assailant.
But in the week since, new evidence has emerged and there has been a reassessment among many Israelis. Reaction to the shooting has broken down along familiar lines, with a poll showing substantial support for the soldier among Jewish Israelis, and thousands—especially on the political right—taking to social media and the streets to demonstrate their support for him. On Thursday, the murder charge was downgraded to manslaughter.
Netanyahu also changed his tone, meeting with the father of the accused soldier and issuing a statement that expressed sympathy, if not full support.
The initial video of the incident was captured by a local Palestinian activist and supplied to Israeli human rights group B’Tselem.
It showed the aftermath of an attack March 24 in which two Palestinian men stabbed and wounded an Israeli soldier at the Gilbert checkpoint inside the occupied West Bank city of Hebron. Another soldier shot them both, killing one and wounding 21-year-old Fatah Sharif.
When the situation had calmed, and Sharif had been incapacitated, the video shows him lying on the ground, alive but offering no resistance. A van blocks the view momentarily, but a gunshot can be heard. When the van moves on, it becomes apparent that an Israeli soldier has fatally shot Sharif in the head.
Days later, however, Israel’s Army Radio published a separate video on its website that suggested the soldiers may have feared the Palestinian had a bomb.
According to the Jewish Telegraphic Agency, someone slightly out of the frame can be heard saying, “He apparently has an explosive on him, pay attention! Nobody touches him until bomb disposal arrives.” Four seconds later, one of the paramedics carrying the soldier—a man who, 20 seconds earlier, had said, “That terrorist is still alive, the dog. Don’t let him get up!”—then cries in panic, “He’s alive. Somebody do something!”
Another clip shows a soldier, apparently the suspect, shaking hands and exchanging smiles with a prominent Hebron settler, moments after the shooting.
The soldier has not been officially identified, and a gag order prevents the use of his name in all news accounts, including those by foreign news organizations accredited in Israel. However, he has been widely identified on social media and Israelis have scrutinized his personal Facebook page, on which he expresses support for right-wing causes.
Lawyers representing the soldier said he acted to save his colleagues because he believed that Sharif, who was still moving, could have been wearing explosives.
However, the soldier did not warn other soldiers standing nearby, and there has been debate about whether his shot could have detonated any explosives.
According to a poll conducted by Israel’s Channel 2, 64% of Jewish Israelis surveyed said that the soldier acted “responsibly” and “naturally” under the pressure of the situation. The poll also found that 68% believed that Netanyahu and Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon had been wrong in criticizing and arresting the soldier.
Solidarity rallies for the soldier have been held in at least two cities.
“I clearly prefer that we have a soldier who makes a mistake in his assessment of a situation than one who hesitates, and is God forbid killed by a terrorist—cases which we have seen in the past,” said Israeli politician and former cabinet minister Avigdor Lieberman, who was among the protesters.
Some 55,000 Jewish Israelis signed a petition addressed to Netanyahu, Ya’alon and military Chief of Staff Gadi Eisenkot calling for the soldier to be awarded a badge of honor for his actions.
Eisenkot said the Israeli army would not hesitate to fully implement the law against soldiers and commanders if they deviate from operational and moral standards.
After six months of Palestinian shooting, stabbing and vehicular attacks against Israelis, a searing debate has erupted over what is an appropriate use of force by the military.
In that time, 30 Israelis, two Americans and an Eritrean bystander have been killed by Palestinians. Israeli forces have shot dead over 180 Palestinians, most of whom they say were carrying out, or about to carry out, attacks.
The mood in Israel is stark contrast to that of the West Bank, where Palestinian leaders have condemned the shooting and called for a United Nations investigation into extrajudicial executions.
“These executions are not isolated events and Israeli must be held accountable for committing these crimes,” said the Palestinian Liberation Organization’s secretary general, Saeb Erekat.
Diana Buttu, former legal advisor to PLO Chairman Mahmoud Abbas, said the investigation into the soldier’s actions was “farcical.”
“Israel has granted its soldiers complete impunity to kill Palestinians,” she said. “The only reason that charges are being brought in the first place is because it was caught on tape. Otherwise, he would not face any charges.”
Shuttleworth is a special correspondent.