Rattling the Cage: When in doubt, shoot

Rattling the Cage When

A man on the Israeli side of the Erez border crossing tries to climb the fence into Gaza, ignoring the shouts and warning shots of Israeli guards, calling out in Hebrew that he's "going in to free Gilad Schalit," and one of the soldiers shoots him in the leg. The man lies bleeding on the ground - the bullet hit a major artery - but the soldiers are afraid to get too close for fear he's wearing a suicide belt under his coat. After "many long minutes," first aid arrives and the man, who's unarmed, is taken to the hospital, where he dies of blood loss. The IDF, Defense Ministry and Israel Police announce that, under the circumstances, the guards did the right thing. They followed the army's "procedure for apprehending a suspect." This happened around 2 a.m. Sunday night. The dead man, Yakir Ben-Melech, 34, of Bat Yam, was mentally disturbed, had been obsessed with Gilad Schalit, and after watching a program on the Schalit family that night, decided to take matters into his own hands. His family told the media he was killed for nothing. "He was running from the direction of Israel to the border fence, so why did they shoot him?" his sister-in-law asked. Based on what security officials are saying, I think the guards shot Ben-Melech because this is how the military mind works - anything strange is suspicious, anything suspicious is dangerous and anything dangerous has to be neutralized one way or another. THIS ABSURD tragedy could have happened anywhere in the world, but it was more likely to happen at a place like the Erez border crossing, where circumstances lead military minds to be unusually suspicious, unusually alert to danger and, therefore, unusually rigid and aggressive. Such a killing could have happened in any country, but it was more likely to happen in a country that lives by the principle that there's no such thing as too much fear. You read some of these security officials' statements about the shooting, and you see they're working really hard to justify it, even to themselves. "The guards had no way of knowing who he was and feared that his attempted infiltration was part of a larger-scale terror attack," one official explained." A terror attack against whom? Against Israel? Why would an Arab terrorist who's already in Israel try to infiltrate Gaza so he can then commit a terrorist act against Israel? The most incisive bit of official reasoning was this one: "Ben-Melech was wearing a heavy coat, raising suspicions that he was carrying weapons or explosives..." I would think that on a December night at the edge of the desert, anybody who wasn't wearing a heavy coat would be suspicious. But then I'm just a civilian. Actually, I was an IDF soldier once, and as a new immigrant draftee in a company of alte cockers in basic training, I spent many, many hours learning how to guard, which mainly meant drilling the "procedure for apprehending a suspect." Based on that experience, I'm willing to bet that the soldiers at Erez had been trained endlessly on what to do if somebody tried to climb the fence from Gaza into Israel - but not at all on what to do if somebody was going the other way. It's such an unlikely possibility, it probably never occurred to the instructors or soldiers - and why should it have? If it did occur to them, they no doubt laughed it off. I can't imagine IDF instructors drilling soldiers seriously on how to react if somebody tries to climb the fence from Israel into Gaza. When it actually happened, I'm sure those soldiers didn't know what in the hell to do - and why should they have? But, I speculate, they figured they had to do something. They were responsible for security at Erez, and no one's allowed to climb the fence into Gaza, obviously. So they followed the procedure for apprehending a suspect - they shouted for him to stop, and when he didn't, they fired in the air, and when he still didn't stop, "the guards opened fire at Ben-Melech's legs, in accordance with military regulations." They shot to subdue, not to kill, but this is a very dicey proposition: Bullets aimed at the legs often end up in the midsection, the torso or the head. This one hit the suspect's legs as intended, but it killed him anyway. There's no doubt Ben-Melech was suspect. He was violating security at Israel's border with Gaza. He was a danger. But a danger to whom? To Israel? How was he a danger to Israel? True, if he'd made it across to Gaza, he would have gotten arrested if not killed by Hamas or other Islamic militants, and they might have tried to trade him or his remains to Israel in return for imprisoned terrorists. But would that possibility have been a justification for shooting him? To protect Israel from a prisoner trade the government might have made to get him back? To protect Israel from being driven crazy again by the media having another Gilad Schalit to play up? "I'm going in to free Gilad Schalit," he called out before being shot. What an absurd, bitter Israeli tragedy this was. Yakir Ben-Melech was a danger, of course, but not to Israel. He was a danger to himself. If the soldiers couldn't pull him off the fence or were too afraid to get close enough to try, they should have let him go to Gaza, not shot him. They might have figured he was mentally disturbed. At worst they might have figured he was an Israeli Arab trying to "defect." The only way they could have figured he was a terrorist threat to this country is if they were brainwashed with fear, which, unfortunately, is likely to happen to Israeli soldiers guarding the Erez border crossing. And not just to them. Postscript: In my column of November 26 I wrote: "After 9/11, the Americans should have retaliated by carpet bombing select areas of [Afghanistan], killing tens of thousands of people, terrorists and civilians both..." Since then, several readers have written to say that in light of that statement, it's hypocritical of me to denounce Israel's deliberate punishment of civilians in Gaza. Because my column was about Afghanistan, I didn't want to go off on a tangent and explain the difference between the US war in that country and Israel's war in Gaza, but I will now. The difference is that after 9/11, America was fighting in Afghanistan in self-defense, and in my view, when you're fighting in self-defense, you have the right to punish the enemy's civilians for the purpose of deterring the enemy from attacking you again. I felt Israel had the same right in the Second Lebanon War, also a war of self-defense (at least at the outset), as I wrote on March 12, 2008: "I supported Israel's unstated policy of punishing the civilian population in Lebanon... because I saw no other way to rein in Hizbullah, no other means of bringing pressure on those fanatics to leave us alone." But Operation Cast Lead was not a war of self-defense. Israel might well have achieved peace and quiet for Sderot had it not imposed a devastating blockade on Gaza immediately after the disengagement. From the beginning, Israel answered the Kassams with weapons of incomparably greater deadliness and destructiveness. On the eve of the war, Israel rejected Hamas's offer to end the rocketing in return for a lifting of the blockade. After all that, Israel did not have the right to attack any Gazan targets, military or civilian, because this was not a war of self-defense, of last resort, at all. The dead civilians, flattened neighborhoods and blasted infrastructure were the war's worst effects, which is why I single them out, but they're not what made the war unjust; Operation Cast Lead was unjust from its inception.