A video of a Palestinian demonstrator being shot by an IDF sniper across the Gaza border has been circulating on the social networks the last few days. The viral clip, released on April 9, would not have evoked such a huge commotion were it not for the Israeli troops cheering in the background. One soldier could be heard shouting in ecstasy, “Wow! What a video! Yes!” at the sound of the shot being fired and a Palestinian crashing to the ground. It sounded like he just won the last round in a shoot-‘em-up video game. His cheer was followed by a string of curses at the fallen protester, with another soldier saying, “They got someone in the head. What a video! Legendary!” It was a real celebration.
Soon after the video went public, the IDF responded that it was an old clip that had nothing to do with the clashes taking place along the border for the past two weeks that have left at least 30 Palestinians dead. It was later claimed that the video was shot last December near Kibbutz Kisufim, and that the Palestinian wasn’t killed but only shot in the leg, as though that were much better. Regardless, it has yet to be proved in any manner that the Palestinian who was shot was armed or that he posed any threat whatsoever to Israeli troops in the area. Nor has it been shown that the soldier speaking in the video was wrong about the protester getting shot in the head.
Yet even if the event did occur late last year, it is entirely possible that the person behind the video decided to release it now against the background of the growing debate within Israel over whether IDF troops are trigger-happy in dealing with the demonstrators along the Gaza border.
After the first demonstration on March 30, Meretz chair Tamar Zandberg demanded that the IDF conduct an investigation. Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman mocked her for it, saying Meretz has proved yet again that it is not part of the State of Israel and that it only represents the Palestinians. In the past, Liberman has accused Arab Knesset members from the Joint List of supporting terrorism. Now, he's expanded his circle of traitors by adding Meretz to his blacklist.
Liberman refused to walk back his statement even after the release of the sniper video, which proved that there is good reason to investigate the IDF's shooting at protesters along the fence. He responded with a little rhyming line about the sniper deserving a medal and the videographer a promotion. Referring to the soldiers’ cheers, he added, “There is a lot of tension when you are on the front lines. People get nervous and emotional. It is easy to understand that.”
Yet despite the defense minister’s comments, the jubilation seen in the video proves that soldiers consider the Palestinian demonstrators along the border fence little more than characters in a video game and not real people. It's yet another consequence of the process of demonization affecting the new generation of IDF recruits.
Two years ago, I was invited to address a group of high school graduates in Herzliya who were about to join the IDF. As they faced enlistment, military service at the checkpoints and the inevitably tense encounter with the local Palestinian population, their teachers asked me to talk to them about life on the other side of the Erez Crossing, in the Gaza Strip. I eagerly accepted their invitation, but throughout my talk I found myself being interrupted with calls of “Death to the Arabs!” Some of the students even described the ideal circumstances they hoped to encounter in the next stage of their lives. They wanted to serve in combat units so that they could kill as many Arabs — they called them “terrorists” — as possible. That was their motto, the essence of the message that they had absorbed from friends who had already enlisted.
It was a formative moment for me. I realized that what I was witnessing was the inevitable result of a younger generation of Israelis who have never actually met a Palestinian, know nothing about Palestinians’ lives and for the most part only see them on TV engaged in violent acts of terrorism. They were just like the Palestinians who for the most part know nothing about Israelis.
After the signing of the Oslo Accord in 1993, the two parties decided to set up a series of joint initiatives intended to restore a sense of normalcy and neighborly coexistence once the Palestinian Authority was established. One of these initiatives, called “People to People,” was intended to bring Israeli and Palestinian people, especially young people, together, so that they could really get to know each other. In this way, it was hoped, they would topple the barriers of hatred dividing them.
But then the Oslo Accord collapsed, replaced by an intifada, terrorism, clashes in Gaza and mutual demonization. On both sides of the fence, the feeling that there was no one to talk to across the border began to take root. Once the meetings between the two sides were called off, the walls dividing Palestinians and Israelis were built even higher and the hostility intensified. Today, the only way that Palestinians and Israelis can see each other in person is through the sights of a rifle or in high friction areas such as checkpoints.
The “People to People” project has long since been disbanded. Today, only human rights organizations and Israeli NGOs even try to arrange such encounters for young people. But it's just a drop in a sea that has been muddied by animosity and hatred. Israel’s right-wing government is busy proving to its own people that there is no one to talk to on the other side and therefore no partner for peace. This week, for the second consecutive year, Liberman prevented over 110 Palestinians from entering Israel to participate in a joint Memorial Day ceremony organized by families on both sides who lost loved ones in the conflict.
The person intended to address this year’s joint ceremony was Israel Prize laureate for Literature David Grossman, whose son Uri was killed in the Second Lebanon War. Last year, Liberman claimed that he denied entry permits to the Palestinian participants for security reasons. This year, he abandoned the security excuse, simply saying instead that he did not intend “to lend a hand to the desecration of Memorial Day.” When the defense minister, one of the highest officials in the country, takes active measures to widen the gulf between the two sides, no one should be surprised when young troops cheer at the sight of a Palestinian demonstrator being felled right in front of them by a sniper’s bullet.