Center Field: Punish act of shooting terrorist but support our kids in combat

This soldier is a kid. All the soldiers are our kids. They and we are under tremendous strain.

April 5, 2016 21:10
idf soldier court

IDF sodlier who shot a neutralized Palestinian terrorist in Hebron in court, March 29, 2016. (photo credit: AVSHALOM SASSONI)

The now-infamous video showing the soldier shooting the terrorist is horrifying – no matter what your politics. The terrorist lies on the floor for a few minutes. Then, abruptly, this kid comes from nowhere and shoots him in the head... and the blood flows.

I don’t share the same moral universe with anyone who isn’t upset by that killing – even though the Palestinian killed had just tried killing someone else. But I also don’t share the same moral universe with anyone who doesn’t see the case’s complexity – starting with the writer’s trick I used, first calling the shooter “the soldier,” then calling him “this kid.”

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In that switch lies this case’s complexity. This soldier is a kid. All the soldiers are our kids. They and we are under tremendous strain.

We demand our kids do the impossible: stay calm and follow procedure when anyone from anywhere might attack with anything lethal at any time. We want 18-year-olds to shoot to kill when attacked but not be trigger happy. We need them to aim explosive weapons with tremendous precision amid an adrenaline surge of fear in confusing conditions. And yet, apparently, we also need to feel free to moralize from afar and punish them up close if they dare blunder.

Hadar Cohen and Ravit Mirilashvili followed procedure when they and a third soldier approached two suspicious people by Damascus Gate in February. One terrorist stabbed Ravit repeatedly. Hadar, despite being inexperienced, reacted and shot the terrorist – only to be murdered by a third terrorist lurking on the side.

A Border Policewoman in December by the Jaffa Gate followed procedure when two terrorists slashed Rabbi Reuben Birmajer to death. Unfortunately, she not only targeted the terrorists, she also mistakenly shot Ofer Ben- Ari, a 46-year-old father of two who saw the commotion, stopped his car, jumped into the fray, and died.

These incidents burden our kids as they face constant fear and frequent attacks. Many of these kids enlisted already traumatized. Say they are 20 years old. When they were between four and eight, they absorbed their parents’ daily tension, debating whether to ride buses or go to restaurants as suicide bombers killed a thousand Israelis in a terrorism tsunami that proved Palestinians cared more about destroying our state than building their own.

When they were 10, if they lived in the North, they may have been in bomb shelters during the Second Lebanon War. When they were 13, they may have been in bomb shelters during Operation Cast Lead – which shouldn’t have occurred, because Israel left the Gaza Strip. If they hail from Sderot and environs, they spent years scurrying for cover from Kassams, often regressing with bedwetting and thumb-sucking. And when they were 18, they might have fought in Operation Protective Edge – or attended a funeral of a comrade, a buddy, a relative.

Given these stresses, it’s miraculous that unauthorized shooting incidents don’t occur daily – and that there have been no mass shootings of Palestinians by terrified soldiers with automatic weapons.

Imagine what Palestinians would do with such firepower – and how little Israelis do with so much lethal potential.

The incident’s singularity reflects the Israeli army’s remarkable morality, discipline and training – which explains why the army must prosecute this unfortunate kid. His act was not heroic. Those right-wingers praising an unjustified shooting as other commanders milled about are suborning insubordination. How could the IDF function if it tolerated the shooter’s assault on the chain of command; where is his and the Right’s respect for the army? His deadly disobedience must be punished.

An army that puts you in the brig for weeks if you wear the wrong boots or don’t wear your cap right cannot condone a downed enemy’s unauthorized, unnecessary execution.

Nevertheless, the punishment should be issued judiciously, thoughtfully. If one soldier – Gilad Schalit – was so precious the Israeli government released 1,027 terrorists for him, wasn’t another soldier’s dignity worth waiting at least 1,027 hours (43 days) before rushing to pillory him publicly? Love the sinner but hate the sin.

The errant soldier does not deserve mass lynching by Facebook or open trial by political demagogues, no matter what idiotic ideas he posted.

Philosophers understand punishment as a form of communication: to condemn an act, deter mimics, or rehabilitate the criminal. Israeli society must censure this act to discourage copycats. But reform becomes irrelevant if the soldier is discharged. And hanging this kid out to dry to make Israel look good in the international arena is immoral and foolish – especially because Israel won’t be treated fairly anyway.

Once again, we confront the conflict’s asymmetrical nature. The world has zero tolerance for any Israeli mistakes.

One deviant Israeli soldier demonstrates Israeli “evil,” while hundreds of Palestinians target Israelis intentionally, constantly. Israelis are always guilty of everything, Palestinians never guilty of anything. The New York Times writes: “about 30 Israelis, two Americans and a Palestinian bystander have been killed by Palestinians since Oct. 1.” Apparently, American tourists and Israeli pedestrians are legitimate targets, only Palestinians are innocent “bystanders.” European and American college students grubbing for grades and flirting for “hook ups” arrogantly judge Israeli peers facing life and death, split-second decisions.

So, no, this soldier shouldn’t be prosecuted to mollify a biased UN or unswayable anti-Zionists. This issue is about “us” not “them,” it’s about internal ethics not foreign policy. This wrongful termination of a terrorist was a disobedient act with lethal results. If found guilty, the soldier’s actions should be punished to preserve military discipline and Israel’s soul. I would imprison him until his discharge date. He won’t repeat the crime and the state would be repudiating his actions.

The author is professor of history at McGill University. His most recent book, The Age of Clinton: America in the 1990s, is his eleventh book. Follow on Twitter @GilTroy

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