The IDF must be accountable for violence against protesters - editorial

We can’t allow lawlessness to be acceptable, on either side, whether by IDF officers or settlers or Palestinians or left-leaning activists.

 Left-wing protestors are seen in the South Hebron Hills on September 17, 2021. (photo credit: COMBATANTS FOR PEACE)
Left-wing protestors are seen in the South Hebron Hills on September 17, 2021.
(photo credit: COMBATANTS FOR PEACE)

The IDF reprimanded a commander for a violent response to a left-wing demonstration in the West Bank.

It was not the first time that security forces acted violently toward protesters, and it underpins how important it is to send a message that commanders and soldiers should not attack demonstrators unless presented with a clear threat or violence.

The recent attack on demonstrators has received more attention, partially because the victims were left-wing protesters, Israeli citizens, and the incident was caught on camera.

The army mentioned in particular the use of stun grenades and tear gas against the Israeli and Palestinian activists who were connected to three NGOs: Combatants for Peace, All That’s Left and the Jordan Valley Coalition. The use of a blindfold on one of the arrestees was also problematic, the IDF added.

The event took place on Friday near the Avigayil outpost and the Palestinian village of at-Tuwani. Area C is under IDF military and civilian control.

The army said that its investigation revealed that protesters had violently attacked soldiers in an attempt to provoke them and to “sabotage” their efforts. It added that the soldiers had made multiple attempts to verbally disperse the protesters in order to clear a traffic lane for settlers. Those efforts were met by curses and threats, with demonstrators even lying on the wheels of the army vehicle, the IDF said.

Was violence necessary? That’s a question that remains open, although the IDF has already determined that the officer abused his authority and overstepped rules of engagement when violently pushing an elderly protester and putting another in a choke hold.

On the one hand, this is not surprising. For decades, impunity has been the law of the land in the West Bank. Right-wing activists set up illegal outposts and nothing happens. They carry out price-tag attacks, and too frequently there are no arrests.

 Activists from the left-wing organizations Combatants for Peace, All That's Left and the Jordan Valley Coalition in the South Hebron Hills (credit: COMBATANTS FOR PEACE) Activists from the left-wing organizations Combatants for Peace, All That's Left and the Jordan Valley Coalition in the South Hebron Hills (credit: COMBATANTS FOR PEACE)

This shows the double standard that sometimes exists in the West Bank. For instance, in places such as Hebron, where far-right Israelis often harass Palestinians, the army sometimes acts as a kind of escort for them. This has even led to situations where the far-right extremists will attack soldiers who get in their way.

What we need to learn from all these situations, whether unwarranted violence against Palestinian demonstrations, abuses against Israeli citizens or altercations between leftist and right-wing activists, is that professional behavior by the armed forces and police is important.

Our army is not meant to be a police force, and it is unfortunate that it is deployed sometimes to deal with what should be police matters, such as dealing with demonstrations. Soldiers often lack the riot control measures and even training to deal with these activists. They may also lack the power to properly detain and process them.

This leads to commanders making mistakes or thinking they can behave as they want, as though the demonstrators were unwanted pests rather than citizens who need to be treated with respect.

In this case, the officer in charge is a respected commander, the IDF said on Sunday, two days after the Friday demonstration in which five activists were detained and three were injured. “An investigation found, however, that he erred and acted in a way that did not conform to the reality [at hand] or with IDF norms,” the army said.

The IDF needs to look into these instances and learn from them. Protesters may sometimes provoke violence, but the IDF needs to train commanders how to deal with these types of incidents. We are aware of this incident because of the footage taken by demonstrators. What happens when the cameras are off?

In a country where equality matters, one group shouldn’t have more rights than another. Too often in the West Bank, far-right extremists treat soldiers like personal servants and then attack them when they don’t get what they want. For instance, in 2014 an IDF colonel had his tires slashed while visiting the settlement of Yitzhar.

We can’t allow lawlessness to be acceptable, on either side, whether by IDF officers or settlers or Palestinians or left-leaning activists. A professional security force respected by all sides will be more effective and also show that Israel is a just custodian of Judea and Samaria.