Middle East

Video of Israeli soldier's killing of Palestinian attacker fuels debate

Protesters rally in support of accused soldier outside a military court hearing (24/03/16) Image copyright Reuters
Image caption One poll indicated a sizeable majority of Israelis approved of the soldier's actions

Almost everything about the shooting of Abdul Fatah al-Sharif made it a very modern moment of news.

There was the time and the place.

It occurred on the edge of the Jewish sector of the divided city of Hebron in the Israeli-occupied West Bank - a kind of crucible of the troubles here, where so many of the stabbings and shootings in the latest wave of violence have happened.

There was the way it was captured on video by a Palestinian working as a volunteer for B'Tselem, an Israeli human rights organisation.

There was the way it has been viewed repeatedly on the internet, dissected and debated, testimony to the ability of those with strong opinions to see what they want to see.

And above all there is the way in which social media reaction is feeding directly into the political debate around the shooting and the legal question of what happens next to the soldier who fired the fatal shot.

'Out of order'

The grim truth about life on the occupied West Bank is that there is nothing particularly unusual about how the video starts.

You see Israeli soldiers milling around and ambulances manoeuvring in the aftermath of an attack.

Two Palestinians have tried to stab Israeli soldiers and have been shot - the body of one, in a short black jacket, is lying somewhere near the middle of the frame.

At one point his head appears to move but none of the soldiers is paying him much attention - at some point before the human rights activist started filming it is believed that one of the soldiers had turned the body of the Palestinian over and kicked away a knife.

Image copyright Btselem
Image caption The controversial killing was filmed by a Palestinian volunteer for an Israeli human rights group

This description of what happens next comes from a slightly unusual source.

"... When the company commander is standing 70cm [28in] from the neutralised terrorist, who the platoon commander already turned over... and kicked the knife a few metres away to the side, the company medic decides that there is a movement and a risk - there were a few versions. He hands his helmet to his friend, cocks his rifle at a 45 degrees angle, shoots the terrorist in the head and kills him."

They are the words of the Chief of Staff of the Israel Defense Forces, Lt Gen Gadi Eisenkot, speaking in a briefing at an army base that was leaked to Israeli media.

A senior spokesman for the IDF, Col Peter Lerner, has been even more emphatic.

"It was quite clear from the outset that there was something out of order there," he told the BBC. "So from our perspective this is definitely a breach of IDF conduct and they [the local commanders] reported it as such."

Col Lerner also pointed out that on 170 occasions where Palestinian attackers have been shot and injured in the latest wave of unrest, IDF medics have treated the attacker in the aftermath of the incident.

Sympathies for soldier

Israelis are brought up to believe that theirs is the most moral army in the world and Gen Eisenkot has left no room for doubt about how he views this incident in the light of that belief.

"The shooting," he said in the leaked briefing, "was in contradiction of the professional and moral norm expected from an IDF soldier."

The soldier who fired the shot - a 19-year-old paramedic - has been confined to barracks.

Image copyright Reuters
Image caption The military has doubted the soldier's claim that he feared the attacker was wearing a bomb vest

Interestingly, though, this appears to be an issue on which the army is out of step with Israeli society.

Alternative footage from the scene has emerged on social media sites suggesting that at least some of the people present believed that the young Palestinian should be checked by explosives experts to make sure he was not wearing a suicide bomb belt.

In one opinion poll, only 5% of those questioned thought the soldier's actions amounted to murder - and more than 80% expressed at least some degree of support.

There are some Israelis who see B'Tselem as the villain of the piece - a view that does not surprise Sarit Michaeli, who speaks for the group.

"I don't lose any sleep over being called a traitor," she told me. "What I do lose sleep over is whether we've done enough every day to expose the harms of the occupation... We're in the run-up to the 50th year of military control over the Palestinian people... this is the meaning of occupation."

Popular pressure

The reaction of right-wing politicians has been interesting.

Defence Minister Moshe Yaalon, who is generally considered a hardliner on issues of national security, has sided with his military commanders.

But others like the former Foreign Minister, Avigdor Lieberman, appear to have scented an opportunity - he turned up at an early court hearing to support the soldier.

And Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu appears to have been wrong-footed on the issue - first appearing to take the view that this was a breach of IDF values and then, apparently as he realised the strength of feeling among his own supporters, making it known that he had spoken on the telephone to the soldier's father, re-assuring him that the legal process would be fair.

Image copyright AFP
Image caption Tensions have been high for months across Israel and the West Bank amid a wave of stabbings

This is not of course the first time that Israel has found itself in the middle of a controversy like this - there are well-known examples from the 1940s and 1980s amongst others, where security forces were accused of carrying out extra-judicial killings of militants.

But Israeli liberals, like the columnist from the Haaretz newspaper Ari Shavit, appear a little taken aback at the strength of right-wing sentiment surrounding the case and are inclined to attribute it to a change in the nature of right-wing politics here from old-fashioned conservatism to radical populism.

"The new kind of populist right-wingers don't respect the rule of law and human rights in the way the old conservative right used to," Mr Shavit told the BBC.

"You have a very complex surprising situation where there is a lot of positive popular pressure in the wrong way, while the military establishment in many ways is trying to keep Israel's old values."

This case is far from over - whatever the charges the soldier faces and whatever the initial verdict of the courts, it is reasonable to assume that years of appeals and counter-appeals will follow.

But slowly the political debate that surrounds the case whatever the outcome will help to define how Israeli attitudes towards such cases are changing over time.