Israel's Abu Ghraib?

 Abu Ghraib was a prison in Iraq where sadistic US soldiers tormented and tortured Arab prisoners with no apparent purpose other than a gratification of what seemed like the Americans' pathological desire to inflict humiliation, fright, and pain. 

Israel's current brouhaha is not the same, except in the nature of some responses generated.

We've been obsessed with a soldier who shot and killed a Palestinian who had attacked and wounded other soldiers, but who had been injured, was laying inert on the road.. 

It didn't take long for the IDF Chief of Staff and the Prime Minister to condemn the killing, and for the military police to arrest the soldier on suspicion of murder.

The Chief of Staff said that the incident ‘doesn’t represent values of the IDF . . .The IDF will give full support to commanders and soldiers who make mistakes, but not for behavior that is against its values,” 

The Prime Minister said, “What happened in Hebron doesn’t represent the values of the IDF,” 

The former Chief of Staff and current  Defense Minister called the action, “in utter breach of IDF values and of our code of ethics in combat.” 

According to the IDF spokesman, “This is not the IDF, these are not the values of the IDF and these are not the values of the Jewish people,”

It didn't take long for those officials to back off from their initial comments, and speak against trial by media and public opinion.  

The large population of Israelis who are former IDF personnel and currently IDF observers have expressed a mixture of views. Some indicated that the Chief of Staff and other officials had spoken out of turn, and should have limited their comments to expressions of concern, and reliance on the IDF's system of justice to decide the matter. 

Jewish politicians ranged from condemning the killing, to attacking what seemed like a preordained verdict, trial by media, "lynching" and "witch hunt". Some defended the soldier, saying that it was reasonable to fear that an attacker would have other explosives hidden on his body, and that it is, or should be, standard procedure to assure the death of a terrorist.

Palestinians and Israeli Arab politicians said it was another example of summary execution. A Palestinian official called on the United Nations to charge Israel with war crimes, and to send troops to protect them from the IDF.

As more details emerge, it looks pretty bad for the soldier being accused. His Facebook and other indications show him to be far to the right, supporting the traditions of Rabbi Meir Kahane.. Before shooting the Palestinian, he was heard to say, several times, that all terrorists should be killed.

He was not involved in defending against the attack, but was somewhere off to the side. He is shown  in a video filmed and distributed by an Israeli civil rights group, cocking his weapon, approaching the man lying inert on the ground, and then shooting him in the head.

There is work for the military police and court. There are reports of an officer checking the wounded Palestinian, and affirming that he had no explosives on his body. There are also contrary claims of what are the standard IDF procedures in such a situation. 

The soldier accused has said that he feared the Palestinian had an explosive hidden under his shirt, which he would detonate to kill the people milling around him. The man's attorney has said that “He operated under the rules of engagement orders he received,”

Ha'aretz published a cartoon that should ring true to anyone who has served. The IDF has lots of rules, distributed to soldiers and expected to be read and learned by men and women exhausted by other duties, and not likely to know for sure what rules apply in which situation. The cartoon shows one soldier paging through a collection of orders about when to open fire, and another soldier saying, "Wow. What is this here, Belgium!"

The soldier's identity has not been released, in accordance with judicial procedure prior to indictment. His family appeared on television, with their backs to the camera, claiming that he acted according to the rules, is being tried by the media and a mob, and is not being judged fairly. Later they reported to the police that a man telephoned, and threatened in Hebrew with an Arab accent that "they would be next." They also said that their identity and phone number had been published on the Internet.

There have been demonstrations on both sides of the issue.

The Chief Sephardi Rabbi, Yitzhak Yosef, added to the dispute with an assertion that goyim have no rights to live in the Land of Israel unless they accept the Biblical laws required of non-Jews, and that it is a religious commandment to kill a terrorist.

Ha'aretz responded with another cartoon, this one showing one soldier with a copy of the orders about opening fire in his pocket, and another soldier, with a fierce face, saying, "I go according to Rabbi Yosef."

Once again we're seeing that not every soldier is an ideal of intellectual and moral capacity. Those who serve also know that panic is likely to prevail at a time of high intensity, with lots of people, noise, and adrenaline.

The IDF has military police, courts, attorneys for the prosecution and the defense for those accused, and prisons for those convicted. 

Armies have a wide range of individuals, reflecting the society of which they are a part. Chances are there'll be sadists as well as moral philosophers, plus political extremists of the right and left. Most just want to serve, survive, find time for rest and relaxation, get home for a weekend, and reach the end of their service. An army that drafts its personnel from a wide slice of the population should have a better profile than an army that relies on volunteers, and attracts men and women with limited education and few other prospects.. 

We can expect to hear more as the case goes through procedures of military justice. Some say that "military justice" is an oxymoron; that there can be no justice in what an army does. But there are others who live with threat, and see the nearby army as essential defense, and generally moral.

Comments welcome 


Ira Sharkansky (Emeritus)
Department of Political Science
Hebrew University of Jerusalem
[email protected]