An Israeli soldier was detained last week after allegations that he shot and killed a wounded Palestinian man lying incapacitated on the ground. Moments earlier the Palestinian, 21-year-old Abd al-Fatah a-Sharif, along with another man, had allegedly stabbed and injured a soldier in the West Bank city of Hebron. The stabbing is one of the latest in a wave of attacks against Israeli soldiers and civilians in the past six months.
Initially the army said that two Palestinians had been shot in response to the stabbing attack. Hours later, however, a video released by Israeli human rights group B’Tselem showed that one of the attackers was apparently still alive and lying on the ground after the incident had ended. The video documents several minutes in which soldiers, civilians and medics, apparently indifferent to the Palestinian, evacuate the injured Israeli soldier and brief each other on events. Then seemingly without warning, one of the soldiers appears to fire from close range at the Palestinian man’s head, killing him.
Official Israeli responses to the footage were swift. An investigation was initiated and the soldier was placed under arrest, which has since been extended. At present, he is being investigated on suspicion of murder. The IDF spokesman announced that the incident was a “grave breach of IDF values, conduct, and standards of military operations.” On Facebook, Israel’s minister of defense said that this was “a most grave breach of conduct and in complete opposition to the very core of the IDF’s moral code of conduct” and promised that the incident would be addressed seriously. While the soldier’s lawyer argued that the soldier felt in danger due to the risk that the Palestinian was carrying explosives, an initial military investigation rejected those claims, saying that the shooting took place 11 minutes after the man had been incapacitated, and the incident had ended, and that the soldier had not followed the proper protocol for dealing with an active explosives risk.
While it is too early to tell how the case will unfold, the army is clearly treating it as an instance of soldier misconduct. Some initial claims have emerged in support of these allegations: Israeli media reported that another soldier testified that the suspect said the man deserved to die for stabbing his friends and that in other footage the soldier can be seen smiling and shaking the hand of a far-right activist after the shooting.
There are many reasons that could drive soldiers to deviate from or exceed military orders, from the strains of deployment to individual motives, such as anger or revenge. I have studied such behavior extensively for my book project “Regular Soldiers: Irregular War: Violence and Restraint in the Second Intifada.” My research shows that the likelihood of unauthorized violence rises considerably when soldiers are deployed for long periods of time.
This incident involved soldiers from the Kfir Brigade, which is primarily deployed in the West Bank. In recent months, Kfir soldiers have been involved in a number of incidents of detainee abuse and violence against civilians. In November, Israeli media reported that the entire brigade would be deployed in and around the city of Hebron, in response to the wave of violence. Considered one of the most difficult deployments even during less volatile times due to the presence of a small, far-right settler community in the midst of the Palestinian city, Hebron has emerged as a key site in the latest wave of violence.
However, my research also indicates that the harmful effects of long deployments can be curbed to a large degree by well-functioning structures of command and control. Incidents of unauthorized violence are far more common among less disciplined units, in which powerful subcultures, individual attitudes and inclinations, and peer pressures are insufficiently monitored and policed. Earlier this month, commanders in the Kfir brigade were dismissed for another severe disciplinary breach of conduct. The adequacy of command structures in the unit will likely emerge as a topic of discussion in the impending trial, especially given the seeming indifference of those on the scene to the shooting. Three officers in the unit have already been reprimanded for not tending to the injured Palestinian and evacuating him in accordance with military regulations.
An alternative interpretation is also possible. In my research on the Second Intifada, I found that in some cases, such incidents do not reflect individual or unit-level misconduct, but rather practices that emerge and spread in a context of norm ambiguity: When orders are not clear, soldiers sometimes devise violent practices to solve operational dilemmas. This appeared to be the case in the 2009 trial of an IDF officer accused of violence against detainees. In that trial, the leadership of the officer’s unit testified in support of his claim that such violence was sometimes necessary, revealing an ambiguity that enabled such practices to spread.
In this case, however, it appears that military regulations are clear – though enforcement remains a different matter. As of yet, no military officers have stepped up in defense of the soldier’s conduct. Indeed, Israeli media reported that the incident was brought to military investigators before the video surfaced. But soldiers may be receiving a different message from the broader public. Since the recent wave of violence began, a number of senior Israeli politicians, security officials and rabbis have publicly called for killing any Palestinian involved in an attack against Israelis. Speaking to a group of high school students in February, Israel’s chief of staff, Gadi Eisenkot, emphasized that the IDF’s rules of engagement permit targeting only when necessary to prevent a life-threatening attack. He was immediately attacked by a number of political officials for highlighting the need for restraint.
Though we have yet to see whether the soldier will use these high-level statements in defense of his actions, family members have already suggested that he is being scapegoated. According to a spokesman for Israeli human rights group B’Tselem, there are suspicions of disproportionate force in at least 12 other cases in which Palestinian attackers were killed by soldiers. In a speech before the parliament, Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon indicated that statements supporting the soldier, coming from high-ranking politicians, confuse soldiers on the ground.
This apparent political competition to voice hard-line positions is bolstered by an increasingly right-shifting public, which has expressed strong support for relaxing the rules of engagement. A poll found that 57 percent of Jewish Israeli respondents opposed the chief of staff’s statements. More recently, an analysis of social media discourse in the wake of the shooting incident found that 82 percent of online statements expressed support for the soldier and for the shooting. In three days, more than 50,000 people signed an online petition calling for a medal of honor to be given to the shooting soldier, and demonstrations in support of the soldier have taken place across the country. Under these circumstances, a murder trial could be politically costly. It remains to be seen whether the prosecution will proceed nonetheless.
Unauthorized violence is just one form of violence in which soldiers engage. However, it is a form that can be limited to a large extent, even during conflict and military occupation. Doing so requires clear and explicit articulation of rules and well-functioning control structures that enforce these rules across military units. This is likely to be increasingly difficult in a political climate that undermines existing rules and the ability to enforce them.
Devorah Manekin is an assistant professor at Arizona State University’s School of Politics and Global Studies.