Border police and local Arabs at Jerusalem’s Damascus Gate in the Old City.
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
Over the last year, the incidents where Palestinians are shot dead directly after their attack or attempted attack has been thwarted, are representative both of how challenging this conflict can be for Israeli policy makers and how Israel avoids having an honest conversation with itself.
Such killings do not make Israel safer in the long run. They are unnecessary, undermine its values, increase its isolation, and serve as incitement for more attacks. Yet the longer term can seem ethereal when confronted with more immediate threats, and there is a rationale for some of these extrajudicial killings, one that is not part of the public conversation but needs to be.
Israel’s official narrative whenever its security officials’ use of force is questioned always starts as one of total justification.
Even when video evidence surfaces, the official narrative is reiterated, unquestioned officially until enough public clamor arises. Rarely is discipline of any serious consequence undertaken, but when it is it becomes a mockery of the clear reality too few Israelis will admit.
They are told these officials are bad apples, and a mild discipline of a soldier or police officer, until it happens again.
It is then officially another unfortunate exception to exemplary official policy, except it is clear that the exceptions are a de facto policy: Kill suspected terrorists when they are in the act of attempted terror or fleeing after a failed attack, even if they are not an immediately lethal threat.
Considering this reality, it is wrong to punish low-ranking officials for what are clearly actions that are condoned at best and fostered at worst from above, as the regularity of such incidents and lack of substantive official responses – well-documented for anyone willing to do research – confirms.
Israel’s current response is a “We don’t do that...” with a knowing wink. Most Israelis either understand this, shrug it off without much thought, or they just accept through willful non-inquisitiveness the narrative that the necessary was done.
In general when there is confusion, it is appropriate to give the benefit of the doubt to security officials as individuals.
But when numerous incidents involving extrajudicial killings are clearly documented on video, there is no denying a larger pattern of which the incidents captured on video are just the tip of an undocumented iceberg.
To be fair to Israelis, societies anywhere confronted with violent attacks from another group, no matter how wronged this other group is, don’t react with patience or understanding.
Islamophobia in Europe and America show that other democracies struggle with these demons.
Yet with some good reason, the world expresses more horror at the behavior of Donald Trump or Benjamin Netanyahu than at the objectively worse behavior from Bashar Assad or Vladimir Putin.
Despite being in a rough neighborhood, Israel is still to be judged as the Western, democratic state it claims to be, and such states do not simply kill subdued or surrounded violent attackers out of convenience, no questions asked. In states that claim the mantle of democracy and modern Western civilization, the higher standard is the only thing worth distinguishing them from the rest of the world.
Former Shin Bet (Israel Security Agency) head Avraham Shalom, when asked in the 2012 documentary The Gatekeepers why he had in 1984 ordered the killing of two bus hijackers who had surrendered, said he “didn’t want any more live terrorists in court. It would only increase terrorism... With terrorism there are no morals. Find morals in terrorists first... In the war against terror, forget about morality.”
That means there is a case to be made in saying “If you are Arab, and you attack us, we’ll call you a terrorist and kill you then and there; there’ll be no day for you in court, no chance to tell television cameras or a judge your story, your side of suffering at our hands. For you, it’s over, you forfeit all rights and protections of our system and we will destroy your family’s house. Because allowing you to try to play the victim as an attacker does not make the Jewish people safer, it incites more violence, and we would be crazy to allow this.”
That is a perspective that is not based on hatred or racism but on a cold rationality that has often been necessary for the survival of societies under threat.
It is also a perspective that fails to incorporate all the lessons of modern counterinsurgency, encouraging perpetual conflict.
If shooting teenage attackers point blank in the head after an attack has been foiled and after they are no longer threats is how Israel wants to conduct itself, that is its choice; but it is a choice that should be presented clearly to the Israeli public and acknowledged as one that moves away from Israel’s founding ideals. An honest representation of its policies acknowledged by Israel’s society and government will earn more respect at home and abroad than the current misleading and cynical routine. Brian Frydenborg is a freelancer writer based in Amman, Jordan, focusing on conflict, public policy, politics, and history. You can follow him on Twitter: @bfry1981