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The unequivocal acquittal of Captain R last week won brief mention in Israel's media, without causing much of a stir. It was duly reported but quickly glossed over.
That in itself is unfortunate because the court-martial of Captain R generated near-hysteria a year ago when charges surfaced that he had shot into the lifeless body of Rafah 13-year-old Iman el-Hams in a superfluous sadistic "verification" of her killing on October 5, 2004.
The girl was detected walking within a closed-off area near the IDF's Girit outpost, while especially high-alert security precautions were in effect. Children are known to be exploited by terrorists either to ferry explosives or as decoys to lure soldiers out into the line of fire.
The girl hadn't stopped despite calls to halt, thereby further arousing suspicion. Eventually the unidentified figure was shot.
R's own soldiers seemed to latch onto Palestinian propaganda about the body having been riddled with bullets. This produced a media feeding frenzy, culminating with an episode of Ilana Dayan's Uvda TV program featuring a videotape in which junior soldiers corroborated allegations against their commander and which included what seemed like snippets of the incident and a subsequent celebration.
R, who is from Israel's Druse community, spent three months in jail and was only released last February after one of the soldiers confessed that the unit framed him because he was a strict disciplinarian and hence highly unpopular. The videotape was a concoction of spliced snippets of daily life at the outpost, entirely unrelated to the killing.
Yet even this didn't get the media off R's back and Dayan hotly defended her tape and program. Politicians tendentiously targeted R, and the case, with attendant publicity here, was used abroad to tarnish Israel's image.
In their 100-page verdict the judges conclude that R acted entirely within army regulations and severely criticize the Military Police investigation and its degrading treatment of R. But the court's hardest-hitting comments were reserved for the media, "whose conduct arouses extremely sad reflections regarding its role in this case. More care by journalists wouldn't go amiss especially in spheres which demand professional expertise and close familiarity with complex combat situations that not all reporters possess." That's putting it mildly. R came within a hair's breadth from being deprived of his freedom and honor for years for no fault of his own. It would have been a gross and tragic miscarriage of justice, abetted by a chorus of celebrity journalists and publicity-hungry politicians.
The court not only saved R. It saved the IDF from twin moral blemishes - both the conviction of an innocent defendant and the
calumny of an IDF officer deliberately abusing a dead youngster.
We cannot but express awe at the dignified response of the captain and his family, despite all they endured. R declared his intention to continue serving the state in combat capacity, regardless of his mistreatment. His anguish cannot be undone. Some of the damage to Israel, especially that wrought overseas, cannot be rectified.
Nevertheless even symbolic redress could come in the form of contrition by those who mercilessly hounded R, even after it was evident he had been set up. He deserves unstinting apologies by his maligners.
Though the media cannot be held completely to the standard that we rely on the judicial system to uphold, neither is it exempt from respecting the presumption of innocence until proven guilty. Worse, the military prosecution, perhaps to curry favor with opinion-makers, also assumed R guilty and leaked all too many ostensibly incriminating insinuations, later proven false.
We cannot escape the impression that R was victimized to promote a political agenda geared to paint the IDF as a heartless oppressor. While R remains admirably loyal to Israel's security, his pursuers need to remind themselves that terrorists operate deliberately behind the cover of civilians, including children.
It is more than appropriate that the IDF punish any soldier who violates its stringent efforts to avoid non-combatant Palestinian casualties. It is no less important that we all remember that moral responsibility for all non-combatant casualties, even those that might have been avoided and certainly those that could not have been, must be placed on the terrorists themselves, who not only deliberately target Israeli civilians, but who routinely hide behind and exploit their own people.
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