Police and Thieves: What is heroism in extreme moments of stress and fear?

Entire doctorates could be written about the political and social changes Israel has undergone in recent years. There is also the effect of social networks and smartphones on the discourse.

Scene of stabbing attack in Rosh Ha'ayin (photo credit: ROSH HA'AYIN MUNICIPALITY)
Scene of stabbing attack in Rosh Ha'ayin
The quiet that Israel had experienced for more than a week was shattered by a terrorist attack on Sunday that was more pathetic than terrifying.
A video of the attack in Rosh Ha’ayin shows a 23-year-old Arab woman from Kafr Kasim awkwardly flailing around with a knife in her hand, trying to find a victim before she is overcome by a group of bystanders.
She did manage to lightly wound a woman from Kfar Saba, whom she stabbed in the shoulder, but her victim was taken to hospital fully conscious and released later the same day.
In the video, one bystander throws a rock at her and scurries away, another tries to fight her off with a chair, and a motorist in a slow-moving car tries to block her path, to no avail. Finally, a security guard from a nearby building arrived with his handgun drawn. Pointing it at her head, he and a group of civilians managed to put her on the ground and disarm her, holding her until the police arrived.
Hours later, a Palestinian man who was carrying a knife as he approached a group of Israelis at the Tapuah Junction in the West Bank, was disarmed by Border Police officers and taken for questioning.
In both cases the result was about as good as it gets for such instances during the “stabbing intifada,” which has seen at least 33 people murdered in stabbing, shooting and vehicle attacks across the country in the past six months. There were no shots fired, no bloodstains on the pavement, no “snuff” videos rocketing around social media.
Considering the timing, it is hard not to link Sunday’s attacks to one carried out in Hebron last week during which a soldier was lightly wounded. Of course it is what happened several minutes later that is most relevant. An IDF soldier arrived on the scene and fired a single bullet into the head of a subdued attacker who seemed to pose no threat, killing him instantly.
Though disturbing, the discourse in the days that followed was not surprising.
The soldier was met with a wellspring of support from the majority of Israelis, and his actions were condemned mainly by the security services and a number of senior politicians.
Meanwhile, among everyday Israelis, a Channel 2 poll found that 42% believe that the soldier acted responsibly in shooting the subdued man, 24% said his actions were natural considering the pressure of the situation, 19% said he violated regulations, and only 5% said the shooting constituted murder.
The soldier – who by any analysis violated IDF regulations – has been widely described as a hero, nothing less, even though he did not risk his own life to further an IDF objective.
Rarely do you see such a clear dissonance between the political and security class and the public. In Haaretz last week, columnist Ari Shavit contrasted the public response to the Hebron shooting to the “Bus 300 affair,” the 1984 execution by the Shin Bet of two Palestinians arrested after hijacking a bus. As he notes, the incident sparked uproar and a media circus that shook the government to its core. This response is radically different to that which we have seen after the Hebron shooting, in which it is the public, not the security establishment, that seems to be justifying – if not outright celebrating – the wrongful use of deadly force.
The public, as many have noted, is to some extent following the lead of a number of politicians who have since the stabbing intifada said in no uncertain terms that attackers who come after Israelis with knives deserve to die, with no hint of nuance to be found.
Judging by these statements and the Channel 2 poll, it appears that the security guard and the bystanders in Rosh Ha’ayin on Sunday failed. They left the attacker alive, basically unharmed, and in the hands of the security establishment.
In the court of public opinion, it was a dereliction of duty for the security guard to have kept his finger on the trigger without shooting the attacker dead.
In a widely shared post on Monday, a Facebook user uploaded a photo of the January 3, 1997, issue of Yediot Aharonot, which showed IDF officer Avi Buskila on top of a tackled terrorist with the headline “the officer who stopped a massacre.”
The terrorist in question was one Noam Friedman, a 21-year-old IDF soldier in civilian clothes who had just fired his M-16 into a crowded market in Hebron, wounding seven Palestinians.
In court after the shooting, he said he had no remorse, and that his attack was meant to scuttle security talks between Israelis and Palestinian over IDF deployments in the city.
As the user writes – sarcastically – “the question is – should Buskila have shot Friedman in the head right after overpowering him, or hand him over to police?” There is nothing bold or shocking about noting that there is often a double standard in Israel applied to Arabs, but if we were to put that double standard aside for a moment, by today’s standards, Buskila failed in the moment of truth, just like the security guard in Rosh Ha’ayin on Sunday.
Entire doctorates could be written about the political and social changes Israel has undergone in recent years, as it has taken a strong rightward tilt. There is also the effect of social networks and smartphones on the discourse, which has become shallow, knee-jerk, and often angry and cruel.
Regardless of the reasons, what we see today is a public debate that is radically different from that which followed the Bus 300 affair, in which racism is openly expressed, the unlawful use of force is shamelessly defended, and those who disagree are tarred as leftists and traitors.
Israel is a strong enough country to prosecute a soldier for wrongdoing and allow a sound legal process to uphold the legal standards of its military. And while these stabbing attacks are very dynamic and don’t follow a set script, those who have shown restraint under the most extreme moments of stress and fear are worthy of commendation. 
The writer covers crime, African migrants and security issues for The Jerusalem Post. His blog can be found at www.benjaminhartman.com