Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Impurity of arms

Jul. 22, 2008

Israeli TV news programs Sunday night aired distressing video footage. It showed a Palestinian who had been arrested, blindfolded and handcuffed during rioting against the security barrier apparently being shot with a rubber bullet, at practically point-blank range.

As a lieutenant-colonel positions the man, identified as Ashraf Abu Rahma, 27, near the door of an army jeep, a soldier is seen taking aim at him. We hear a shot, but the film clip is not continuous so we do not actually see the shooting. Footage resumes with Abu Rahma on the ground.

If these images accurately portray what happened, Israelis can only be disheartened by the brutality of the perpetrators, and by the lack of discipline such cruelty and stupidity exposes. If guilty, those involved should be punished appropriately.

The IDF's judge advocate-general has already viewed a tape of the incident and the army has launched an investigation into the conduct of the soldiers. Defense Minister Ehud Barak expressed his chagrin, calling the incident an aberration that does not reflect the values of the IDF. That is what all Israelis would like to believe.

The rubber bullet injured Abu Rahma's left toe. He was treated by an IDF physician on the scene and released. Images of what is purported to be his swollen toe are now posted on the Web.

This troubling incident, which could have ended much worse, took place on July 7, over the Green Line, near Nil'in, which is west of Ramallah and northwest of Modi'in Illit. It is a spot where often-violent protests are orchestrated weekly against the security barrier. Its opponents claim that this fence will cut them off from their farm land.

The barrier is being erected to keep Palestinian suicide bombers and terrorists away from Israel's population centers. But Israel's Supreme Court stands ready to hear Palestinian complaints and has ordered the route to be shifted where warranted.

PROTESTERS OPENLY film their staged confrontations with the soldiers at the barrier, for propaganda purposes. Typically, after throwing rocks, vandalizing sections of the fence under construction, even overturning the occasional bulldozer, "demonstrators" confront Israeli security forces.

The script then calls for the security forces to "overreact" - which, unfortunately, they sometimes do. In one incident, a helmeted policeman is filmed head-butting a rioter. The Abu Rahma shooting was caught on film by a 14-year-old Arab girl from Ni'lin using a hidden camera provided by the B'Tselem advocacy organization.

The soldier, serving in the regular army, reportedly told investigators that his commanding officer ordered him to fire at Abu Rahma, who had allegedly been rioting. Abu Rahma claims the demonstration was "peaceful."

Plainly, the incident should have been immediately reported up the chain of command. The IDF should itself have investigated and exposed any wrongdoing. On the face of it, the army took action only after B'Tselem released its video to the media.

B'Tselem, which is mostly funded by foreign governments and foundations though staffed by local Israelis and Arabs, has been distributing cameras to Palestinians in areas of "friction" between Arabs and Jewish residents of the territories or soldiers. The camera project, slugged "Shooting Back," also apparently captured four masked Israelis beating Palestinian shepherds near the village of Khirbet Susiya in the Hebron area.

We can empathize with soldiers and reservists who are put in the field under a beating sun, forced to endure in staged protests an onslaught of rocks, stones and taunts by Palestinian rioters and their cadre of radical sympathizers from within Israel and abroad. With all that, what is demanded of our forces - even in the face of blatant provocation - is professionalism, discipline and restraint.

THE IDF, which operates in an unprecedented media bubble, is held to a higher standard than just about any other army in the world. When its fails to meet that ethical expectation - as it seems to have done on the occasion under scrutiny - the entire country suffers the consequences.

It's not just that Israel's fortunes are especially dependent on the support we receive from Europe and America and so our good image matters. We must also not allow the Palestinians' glorification of violence to brutalize us.

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