The Fallout Over the Hebron Shooting is a Fight for Israel’s Soul

By Nir Oz-Ari
on April 1, 2016

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Last week’s video, released by B’Tselem, depicting an IDF soldier executing a Palestinian attacker in Hebron after a stabbing attack is appalling.

Its implications are far-reaching. As an Israeli currently living in the US and as a staff member of a pro-Israel organization, the issue of the image of Israel in the eyes of the world, specifically the Jewish world, is constantly on my mind. One of the main characteristics of today’s connection between Israel and US Jewry is the huge gap between the way Israel wishes to portray itself, the way it’s being portrayed by the international media and the image that is settling in the minds of young Jewish Americans.

When I served in the IDF, I spent a great deal of my military service in Hebron. I served as a medic on an intensive care unit, and we were always amongst the first to provide medical assistance and quickly evacuate victims of violent acts all around the West Bank.

The reality of the occupation in Hebron was shocking to me then, as it is now. I often encountered what I viewed as inhumane behavior by the settler population in the city. I thought then, as I do now, that a settler community of a few hundred has no business living within one of the most highly concentrated Palestinian areas in the West Bank. This results in a reality in which hundreds of soldiers are protecting a few hundred settlers while disrupting the lives of thousands of Palestinian who live, or used to live, in what is known as “Jewish Hebron.”

There are testimonies and documentations of events where soldiers were involved in outrageous and disproportionate violations of the human rights of the occupied Palestinian population. But most of the time, the IDF seeks to treat the civilian population as humanely as possible within the reality of the occupation. As a soldier, my officers impressed the “Spirit of the IDF (the IDF’s ethical code) repeatedly, and I was taught to value Palestinian dignity.

With this on my mind, my stomach turned in horror when I watched B’Tselem’s video last week.

The executing soldier should be prosecuted to the full extent of the law. He acted like the radical settlers known to attack Palestinians out of mere vengeance, which whom he expressed sympathy on social media.

That’s how extremists, not how a soldier, is expected to behave. I want to believe that he would have been arrested even without B’Tselem’s documentation.

I also appreciated the statement by the IDF Spokesperson, stating that the army acknowledges the severity of the events and that the soldier acted against the Spirit of the IDF.

In a contrast, the silence of leaders and members of the coalition is deafening, and evinces a damning picture of Israel. Especially the response by Prime Minister Netanyahu — who released a dry and laconic statement and two days later released and even more off-base one — expressing sympathy with the soldier and his family. Education Minister Naftali Bennett is trying to appeal to the same far-right political base, ignoring the values that should’ve been embedded in him as reserve officer in an elite IDF unit, and referring to the shooting soldier as “a hero.” And their inflammatory comments have been echoed in the shocking poll numbers showing a majority of Israelis opposing the soldier’s arrest.

Once again I find myself ashamed as an Israeli, as a Zionist and as a Jew — ashamed of my elected leaders and ashamed that their values are perceived as Zionist. I am afraid for the future of the country I love under the reality of the occupation.

The harsh truth is that the beautiful, inviting and peace seeking image of itself that Israel wishes to broadcast to the world doesn’t exist for many Jews under 25 who developed their political worldview during this period — in which Israel is at a political stalemate under the rule of Netanyahu and the Likud party. The socially-conscious Israel, that was engaged in self-defence against enemies seeking its destruction, whose leaders acted to change the status-quo and to reach a peace agreement no longer exists. The Israel they see is a state whose leaders are myopically focused on their personal political survival, where the only liberal voices are defensive and marginalized. Israel’s core values — which always stood at the center of the military and of the society — have suddenly become an issue for public debate.

I’m writing this blog over a week after the Hebron shooting. It’s becoming increasingly clear that the inner struggle in Israel is nothing less than a fight for the character of the country and for the values on which it stands. It’s interesting that the story has hardly impacted foreign and American media, but the results of this struggle will shape the image of Israel, and therefore, will shape the connection between Israel and its allies around the world. I believe in all my heart that incidents like the Hebron debacle threaten these connections, and losing them, along with Israel’s moral character, is the greatest strategic threat Israel faces.

Nir Oz-Ari is a Digital Associate at J Street. He’s on Twitter at @niroari