After the July 3 incident in which a Binyamin Brigade commander shot and killed a Palestinian youth in the West Bank who had thrown stones at him, the most surprising reaction was that of Yesh Atid chair Yair Lapid, who was quick to support the officer. The incident took place when Col. Yisrael Shomer, driving near the West Bank village of al-Ram, encountered a stone-throwing ambush that smashed his military jeep's windshield. Shomer responded with fire, mortally wounding 17-year-old Mohammad Kasba, who later died of his injuries.
In the wake of this incident, the military police investigated whether the brigade commander had complied with standing procedures. The inquiry elicited great anger among the commanders serving in Judea and Samaria, who claimed that Shomer was in a life-threatening situation and there was no reason for an investigation.
Unlike the support that was expected from Education Minister Naftali Bennett, the chairman of right-wing HaBayit HaYehudi, Lapid’s warm embrace of the brigade commander aroused great interest and was featured prominently in the media. He did not wait for the results of the investigation, and shortly after the incident told the media, “The prime minister and the defense minister ought to fully back, in their own voice, the commander of Binyamin Brigade who shot and killed a terrorist that had thrown rocks at his vehicle. Rocks kill, and the soldiers of the Israel Defense Forces [IDF] should be able to defend themselves and know that the political establishment totally has their back.”
Against the backdrop of a rise in terror incidents over the past two weeks in Judea and Samaria an the UN Human Rights Council report that accused both the IDF and Hamas of war crimes in Operation Protective Edge in Gaza last summer, such immediate and full backing by Israeli politicians merits discussion.
The position presented by the right-wing Bennett and the centrist Lapid coincides with the mindset of the majority of the Israeli public, which is inclined to back soldiers serving in the territories and tends to think of such investigations as abandoning the soldiers to the enemy and to a world hostile to Israel. Lapid more than likely garnered quite a few points with the Israeli public for his unabashed defense of the brigade commander. The question remains whether someone purporting to be a responsible leader should restrain himself before cashing in political dividends and whether he should wait for the incident to be fully investigated before adopting an unequivocal position.
Yariv Oppenheimer, the director-general of the Peace Now movement, claims that if in the past politicians addressed similar situations in a more calculated, factual manner, they now seem to prefer immediacy and quickness to thorough investigation. Talking to Al-Monitor, Oppenheimer says, “Instead of demanding the IDF investigate an incident with a bad outcome, politicians were quick to fully back an officer without knowing the facts. I’m sure that if the stone thrower had been a Jew belonging to the Hilltop Youth [a hard-liner nationalist youth movement in Israel noted for establishing illegal outposts outside existing settlements on the hilltops] and if he had been shot by the IDF, there would have been calls to suspend the brigade commander. By declaring, in the name of patriotism, that this is what is expected of an officer, what the politicians are doing is making an internal investigation mechanism utterly superfluous. The way I see it is that due to political considerations, there is over-enthusiasm to support the IDF. In his desire to win the public’s support, Lapid is taking a stand without having checked the facts.”
Even Amram Mitzna, a former Labor Party chair who served as OC Central Command during the first intifada, sees a great degree of populism in the reactions to the incident. Asked by Al-Monitor about the bluster from the right, left and center, he says, “It is inappropriate for Arab Knesset members to immediately label the brigade commander a cold-blooded murderer. The same is true of the automatic backing of right-wing and centrist politicians. First you need to investigate. And in this case, too, even though it’s a brigade commander, we need to get to the bottom of the truth and not turn it into a political event, as was the case here. Precisely because we’re talking about a brigade commander, it is important for soldiers to understand that when a Palestinian is killed, albeit under operational circumstances, an investigation has to be conducted. That’s elementary.”
According to Mitzna, even if this phenomenon is not new in Israeli politics, it has worsened in recent years. “The reality of the last few years sharpens the situation: The activity in Judea and Samaria is constantly placed under a magnifying glass. There are hundreds of cameras on the ground. Reporters with an agenda are hanging out in the area, and there is online reporting. Quite a few incidents from recent years that started out as a result of a photo or some other type of documentation turned out to be entirely different from the way they were portrayed in the media. We need to investigate events dispassionately, but politicians get in the way. Lapid is trying to have it both ways. This was an injudicious statement.”
By contrast, Danny Yatom, who also served as OC Central Command and was in charge of the Judea and Samaria sector, claims that in most cases in which Palestinians are either wounded or killed, there is no need for a military police investigation and that a probe should be enough. “Today, every death of a Palestinian is being investigated,” he tells Al-Monitor. “But maybe the law should be amended so that such incidents would be probed by the commanders and not by a parliament member, because this is an operational incident. Oftentimes, soldiers experience a terrible miscarriage of justice but end up being exonerated. I look at this from the angle of young soldiers who know that every incident is caught on camera. I know of cases where soldiers did not open fire in front of a rioting mob when they should have, lest they be investigated, found guilty and sent to prison while defending the State of Israel.
“The thing is,” Yatom sums up almost despairingly, “that the brigade commander incident should remind the Israeli public and left-wing and centrist politicians that there is a painful reality in Judea and Samaria, whereby generations of commanders and soldiers are sent to do policing work, which is not the military’s forte. This is why the diplomatic process is essential, and those [politicians] would do well to focus on that. That’s their job and that’s their calling.”