Israel divided over case of soldier who shot wounded Palestinian attacker

When an Israeli soldier pulled the trigger on his rifle last month, the shot sparked a debate across the country about the use of force against Palestinians attackers, opening up a rare rift between the Israeli military and the public.

Incident has created rare divide between Israeli public and top level of the Israeli Defence Forces

Israeli soldiers stand near the body of a Palestinian man who was shot and killed by a soldier while lying wounded on the ground after a stabbing attack in Hebron, West Bank on March 24, 2016. (Associated Press)

When an Israeli soldier pulled the trigger on his rifle last month, the shot sparked a debate across the country about the use of force against Palestinian attackers, opening up a rare rift between the Israeli military and the public.

The bullet killed a Palestinian man, Palestinian doctors said on Sunday, as he lay wounded on the ground.

The March 24 incident, in the Israeli-occupied West Bank city of Hebron, began when two Palestinian men stabbed an Israeli soldier at a checkpoint.

Both attackers were shot by Israeli soldiers at the scene, leaving one dead and the other — identified as 21-year-old Abed Fattah al-Sharif — wounded.

Video filmed by an activist for the Israeli human rights organization B'Tselem shows another Israeli soldier, arriving about six minutes after the stabbing, cocking his rifle and shooting Sharif in the head.

That the final shot to Sharif's head resulted in his death, a Palestinian pathologist present at the autopsy said Sunday.

Sarit Michaeli is a spokesperson for B'Tselem, the human rights organization that filmed the video showing the shooting. (Derek Stoffel/CBC News)

In the days after the incident, Israeli politicians began to weigh in, with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu going so far as to declare that the Hebron incident did not reflect the values of the Israeli Defence Forces (IDF).

"IDF soldiers, our children, hold themselves to the highest moral standards, even as they bravely battle bloodthirsty murderers in difficult operational conditions," Netanyahu said, adding Israeli soldiers are "expected to exercise restraint and follow open-fire regulations."

But Education Minister Naftali Bennett, who heads the right-wing Jewish Home party, lashed out at those "in such a hurry to condemn the soldier."

"Have we lost our minds? We are at war, a war against brutal terrorism … Perhaps he believed that the terrorist had an explosive device and might use it at any moment, and by shooting him, it would save lives and prevent another attack," Bennett wrote on his Facebook page.

The lawyer for the soldier — who cannot be identified publicly — defended his client, saying he acted to protect those at the scene and that he believed Sharif still posed a threat by wearing an explosive belt concealed under his jacket.

The soldier has been suspended from duty while Israeli military police investigate the incident. Army prosecutors say a charge of manslaughter could be laid.

Israeli right-wing protesters wave flags outside of Castina military court, near the southern Israeli city of Ashkelon, Israel on March 29, 2016. Hundreds of protesters rallied outside the court in support of the soldier, who could face a manslaughter charge. (Ariel Schalit/Associated Press)

But the incident has created a rare divide between the Israeli public and the top level of the Israeli Defence Forces, one of the country's most respected institutions.

Most Israelis — men and women — serve in the IDF after high school, and as adults, Israelis are fiercely protective of soldiers, often viewing them as their own sons and daughters.

That's made it harder for IDF brass to walk a fine line between protecting citizens during a six-month wave of near-daily attacks, while recognizing that the public mood has been fanned by those politicians who have taken a hard line against Palestinian attackers.

"Dead terrorists are better than dead soldiers," said Ofir Akunis, Israel's minister of science and technology. 

That kind of tough talk is behind the broad public support of the soldier, according to B'Tselem.

"In recent months, Israeli leaders again and again repeated this claim that any Palestinian who attacks Israelis is a dead man," said B'Tselem spokesperson Sarit Michaeli. "This, in combination with a very lax approach on behalf of law enforcement, … is actually behind the public climate that we see today."

A recent poll by Israel's Channel 2 television station found 57 per cent of Israelis believe the soldier should never have been arrested and are against the criminal charges against him. The other 32 per cent support the criminal charges.

Jerusalem resident Yaniv Jahvir shared his thoughts with CBC News about the possible charge, saying Israel needs to support the soldier 'even if we find out that he made a mistake.' (Samer Shalabi/CBC News)
Nechama Oviada, meanwhile, says she wants the world to know that some Israelis, herself included, 'believe in justice in these cases.' (Samer Shalabi/CBC News)

"Yes, of course, I support [the soldier] because he's there defending our country in a very, very sensitive time for Israel," said Jerusalem resident Yaniv Jahviri. "We need to support the soldier, even if we find out that he made a mistake."

But as Jahviri spoke to CBC News on Sunday, an Israeli woman waited patiently for him to finish, wanting to add her own views to the conversation that continues to dominate discussion across the country.

"It's really important for me that people will know all over the world that there are people here like me that do believe in justice in these cases," said Nechama Ovadia.

"People should open their eyes and see that even if there is a war, you should still behave with humanity and according to the international law."


Derek Stoffel

World News Editor

Derek Stoffel is a former Middle East correspondent, who covered the Arab Spring uprisings in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya and reported from Syria during the ongoing civil war. Based in Jerusalem for many years, he covered the Israeli and Palestinian conflict. He has also worked throughout Europe and the U.S., and reported on Canada's military mission in Afghanistan.

With files from Reuters