Analysis from Israel

That Israelis are still arguing over the soldier who shot a wounded terrorist in Hebron three weeks ago isn’t surprising; the very rarity of the case naturally makes it the talk of the country. What is surprising, however, is how many left-wing pundits have used comparisons to the famous Bus 300 affair of 1984 to accuse today’s Israel of moral degeneration (two examples here and here). For by any reasonable standard, what this comparison actually shows is how much higher Israel’s moral standards have become over the last 32 years.

The Bus 300 affair began when Palestinian terrorists hijacked a civilian bus, Bus 300, and threatened to kill all the passengers. Israeli troops eventually stormed the bus, killing two terrorists and capturing two others. The Shin Bet security service then took the bound, captured terrorists to an isolated spot and killed them. It subsequently claimed all the terrorists were killed when the bus was stormed, but that claim was disproven a few days later when an Israeli daily published a front-page picture of one captured terrorist being taken off the bus, clearly very much alive. Thus ended Act I; we’ll get to Act II later.

Last month’s incident in Hebron, in which the soldier killed a terrorist who was already lying on the ground wounded, has some obvious similarities. But consider the differences:

First, in the Bus 300 affair, the extrajudicial execution was perpetrated by the highest ranks of the defense establishment: It was ordered by then-Shin Bet chief Avshalom Shalom – who would later be lionized by leftists for denouncing Israel’s presence in the West Bank in the documentary film “The Gatekeepers”– and carried out by the agency’s then-chief of operations, Ehud Yatom. In contrast, the Hebron shooting was the private initiative of a single, relatively low-ranking conscript, a sergeant.

Second, the defense establishment did its best to cover up the Bus 300 killings, and they would probably have succeeded absent that newspaper photo. In contrast, according to every media account of the Hebron incident thus far, the ranking officer on the scene reported the shooting up the chain of command less than 10 minutes after it happened, and his superiors promptly decided to open a Military Police investigation. That decision was made even before B’Tselem published its famous video of the incident.

Third, after the Bus 300 photo was published, the Shin Bet tried to frame an innocent man for the killing. That man, army officer Yitzhak Mordechai, stood trial but was ultimately acquitted. As far as we know, nothing remotely comparable happened in the Hebron case.

But the contrast becomes even starker when we consider Act II of the Bus 300 affair. It opened two years later when three senior Shin Bet officers told then-Prime Minister Shimon Peres that Shalom had ordered the killings. Peres – who also later became a leftist icon (and Nobel Peace Prize laureate) for his role in the Oslo Accords – not only refused to order an investigation but kicked the three out of the Shin Bet. They subsequently took their information to then-Attorney General Yitzhak Zamir, who did order a criminal investigation. But the government told him to drop it, and when he refused, he, too, was kicked out of office.

In the Hebron shooting, by contrast, not only has no one been fired for pursuing a criminal investigation but Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon, both from the center-right Likud party, publicly demanded a full and thorough probe. That probe is currently underway, and an indictment is expected shortly.

But the crowning glory of the Bus 300 affair occurred soon after Zamir’s dismissal, when then-President Chaim Herzog – like Peres, a member of the left-leaning Labor Party (which his son, Isaac Herzog, currently heads) – forestalled any further attempts at investigation by issuing a preemptive pardon to Shalom and four other Shin Bet officers. This is the only preemptive pardon in Israel’s history; usually, pardons are granted only after someone has been indicted and convicted. Nevertheless, the Supreme Court upheld it, so nobody ever stood trial for the killings except the innocent man who was framed.

In contrast, barring some unexpected development, the Hebron shooter almost certainly will stand trial, most likely for manslaughter.

So how can anyone comparing these two incidents possibly see evidence of moral deterioration? It boils down to one claim: The Israeli public was “shocked” by the Bus 300 affair, whereas the Hebron shooter enjoys strong public support. That claim, however, ignores two important facts.

First is the fact that social media didn’t exist in 1984; if it had, it would have shown plenty of anti-Arab racism then, too. This isn’t mere speculation; 1984 is the year Meir Kahane’s subsequently banned Kach Party first entered the Knesset, and his supporters used to chant racist slogans in the streets.

The more important fact, however, is that most of the Hebron shooter’s support stems not from anti-Arab racism, but from three elements that didn’t exist in the Bus 300 case.

First, whereas the Bus 300 terrorists were already bound and harmless, the Hebron terrorist was still unbound and free to move his hands. Since wounded terrorists in similar situations have used that freedom to kill – for instance, by detonating explosive vests – many Israelis felt the soldier might well have been justified in opening fire if, as he claims, he saw a suspicious hand movement.

Second, the initial evidence against the soldier – before testimony had been taken from his comrades – consisted mainly of Palestinian video footage disseminated by B’Tselem. Since it’s hardly unknown for Palestinian videos to be edited in ways that distort the truth (for instance, by showing a soldier’s response to some Palestinian action but not the action itself, thereby making the response seem unprovoked), many Israelis were unwilling to condemn the soldier based solely on the video.

Third, many Israelis felt the soldier was badly wronged when Defense Minister Ya’alon and IDF Chief of Staff Gadi Eisenkot did immediately condemn him, without awaiting an investigation of the facts. And frankly, any self-respecting liberal ought to agree. Since Ya’alon and Eisenkot are the people who must approve every senior officer’s promotion, this constituted gross interference in the course of justice. Military prosecutors have already decided they can’t win a murder conviction, but with their bosses having publicly declared the incident a crime, they might well feel compelled to charge the soldier with something even if they would otherwise deem an indictment unwarranted.

In short, the different public reactions stemmed from serious substantive differences in the cases rather than from any major change in Israelis’ moral values. In contrast, the establishment’s behavior reflected a real change in moral values – and that change was entirely positive.

Three decades ago, an extrajudicial murder was ordered by the highest levels of the defense establishment, covered up by the highest levels of government and ultimately never investigated or prosecuted. Last month, a manslaughter (at most) was committed by a low-level soldier acting alone and immediately investigated by the military itself, with full support from the highest levels of government.

How any sane person can call that evidence of moral degeneration is beyond me. But then, as I’ve shown before, claims of Israel’s moral deterioration rarely hold up well under scrutiny.

Originally published in Commentary on April 13, 2016

2 Responses to A Tale of Two Shootings

  • Noru Tsalic says:

    Thanks for this, Evelyn, as usual very good. I’d only add that it is telling that Israel ‘s detractors have to go back to the 1980s to find an even remotely similar incident. Two incidents in 30+ years for a country facing frequent terrorist attacks? It’s a brilliant record, one that I challenge other armies to emulate!

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Israel’s constitutional crisis has been postponed, not resolved

After years of leftists crying wolf about democracy being endangered, Israel finally experienced a real constitutional crisis last week. That crisis was temporarily frozen by the decision to form a unity government, but it will come roaring back once the coronavirus crisis has passed.

It began with Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein’s refusal to let the newly elected Knesset vote to replace him as speaker and culminated in two interventions by the High Court of Justice. I’m one of very few people on my side of the political spectrum who considers the court’s initial intervention justifiable. But its second was an unprecedented usurpation of the prerogatives of another branch of government, in flagrant violation of legislation that the court itself deems constitutional.

Edelstein’s refusal, despite its terrible optics, stemmed from a genuine constitutional concern, and was consequently backed even by Knesset legal adviser Eyal Yinon, who had opposed Edelstein many times before and would do so again later in this saga. The problem was that neither political bloc could form a government on its own, yet the proposed new speaker came from the faction of Benny Gantz’s Blue and White Party that adamantly opposed a unity government. Thus whether a unity government was formed or Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s caretaker government continued, the new speaker would be in the opposition.

But as Yinon told the court, speakers have always come from the governing coalition because an opposition speaker can effectively stymie all government work. And once elected, he would be virtually impossible to oust, since 90 of the Knesset’s 120 members must vote to do so. An opposition speaker would thus “hurt democracy,” warned Yinon. “We’re planting a bug in the system, and this, too, undermines our constitutional fabric.” That’s why Edelstein wanted to wait, as Knesset bylaws permit, until a government was formed and could choose its own speaker.

Yet despite this genuine and serious concern, the fact remains that a newly elected majority was being barred from exercising its power. Moreover, it had no parliamentary way of solving the problem because only the speaker can convene parliament and schedule a vote. Thus if you believe majorities should be allowed to govern, the court was right to intervene by ordering Edelstein to hold the vote.

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