What happens when a soldier shoots a disarmed terrorist and is caught on camera?

A shooting in Hebron sparks fierce debate on Israel’s military rule in the occupied territories, on the responsibility of soldiers to protect Palestinian lives too, and on whether Israel’s security needs are really at odds with human rights.

The Moment

In March 2016, a Palestinian approached a checkpoint in Hebron and attacked an Israeli soldier with a knife. After the terrorist was injured and lying on the ground – no longer posing a threat – another soldier on the scene shot and killed him point blank. This was captured on video by a B’Tselem volunteer. The soldier was arrested, sparking a national conversation on morality and the rule of law.

For months, the top news story was the aftermath of this incident and its moral and legal implications for Israeli society. Progressive Israelis pointed to the shooting in Hebron as proof that the occupation poses an immense burden on Israeli society. Far-right politicians defended the shooting and criticized the IDF for enforcing the rule of law. This controversy led to the ousting of then Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon, who publicly supported putting the soldier on trial for criminal conduct.

This case was not an isolated incident. What set it apart, however, was that the shooting was caught on video at a time when NIF grantees were actively challenging the hawkish notion that settlements and the occupation somehow enhance Israel’s security. Human rights activists and national security experts were ready when this moment came.

We Responded

NIF grantees were there every step of the way in response to this  moment. B’Tselem has provided cameras and training to Palestinians living in particularly tense spots in the West Bank for over a decade. They released the video of the Hebron shooting to the public, and when the shooting became news, progressive activists leveraged the opportunity. New voices from the security establishment used their credibility to make the point that the settlements and the occupation make it harder to keep Israelis safe.

The trial lasted several months, keeping the wider issue of the rule of law on the public agenda. As a result, the headlines and airwaves were filled with military leaders publicly reinforcing the IDF’s code of ethics and defending the due process of law. While ultra-nationalists threatened military judges and the IDF Chief of Staff, the arguments made by progressive national security experts took on a new power and urgency.

In January 2017, a military court handed down its verdict. The court adhered to the IDF’s rules of engagement, and using very careful and precise language, found the soldier guilty of manslaughter. After exhausting his appeals, the shooter began serving his prison sentence in August.

  • NIF Grantee B’Tselem has been providing its volunteers with cameras since 2007, recording scores of human rights abuses in the West Bank since then. Photo Credit: B’Tselem.

We Were Ready

The role of human rights organizations is to hold up a mirror to society and ask, “is this what we want to be?” Driving meaningful change demands exposing what those in power would rather keep hidden and asking difficult questions about security and the rule of law. While this makes human rights advocates unpopular at times, it is crucial for the survival of Israel’s democracy

This commitment of Israel’s human rights community ensured that the shooting in Hebron could not be covered up and that rule of law would be maintained. NIF grantees like B’Tselem, Breaking the Silence, and Yesh Din monitor the brutal realities of life in the West Bank, documenting human rights violations against Palestinians and keeping the occupation on the public agenda. NIF’s support of groups reclaiming the national security discourse, like Mitvim and the Peace and Security Association, complements this crucial work by exposing how the occupation harms Israel’s security. All these factors came together to make this a moment in which Israelis engaged in a national debate on occupation and the rule of law.

Our strategy is clear. Human rights defenders must continue to challenge the policies of occupation – land appropriation, restrictions on movement, and violence – in the courts, in the media, and in the public square. And they need to be supported by those with the credibility to reframe the national security debate in a way that more and more Israelis understand the danger that their security is threatened by the entrenchment of the occupation and the expansion of settlements. In May, as the 50th anniversary of the Six Day War and the start of the occupation approached, nearly 20,000 Israelis turned out at a rally at Tel Aviv’s Rabin Square to send the message that there is a loud and proud pro-peace, pro-democracy camp in Israel.