An IDF soldier who shot an already-incapacitated Palestinian stabber in Hebron last Thursday has drawn widespread sympathy from Israeli MKs and the Israeli public. Prime Minister Netanyahu and Defense Minister Yaalon find themselves facing criticism for suggesting that the soldier should be subject to the judicial processes of the IDF. The resulting debate raises three important points about civil-military relations in Israel.
First, the Israeli public trusts greatly the IDF as an institution, but also supports individual soldiers. A 2016 survey of surveys by Tiargan-Orr and Eran-Jona found that even during periods of relative quiet in Israel, 71% of the Israeli public "trusts IDF senior commanders" and 76% "have confidence in the IDF's fighting abilities." As the vanguard of the state, and an institution in which nearly all Israelis serve, the IDF is a highly respected entity.
At the same time, Israelis want assurances that their sons and daughters have the tools and rules of engagement they need to protect themselves in combat. A letter by the mother of the soldier who shot the Palestinian man in Hebron reveals a sense of betrayal by the establishment. She writes, "he isn't just my son, he is the child of all of us," This statement is evidence that public opinion over the incident is shaped by the question, "What if it had been my son?"
Second, the IDF's rule-based order is generally effective but lacks support from politicians. Footage of IDF soldiers using force in a confrontation with civilians is often designed to portray the military as unprofessional and haphazard. In individual cases this may very well be the case, as it could be with any military. At the same time, the IDF's reaction to Thursday's killing was prompt. The soldier was arrested the same day, and a murder indictment has already been filed. This comes after discussion that the charge would only be manslaughter. The IDF is taking the incident seriously in a way that befits a military in a liberal democracy. No doubt, the IDF also understands the international political implications of video footage of the incident which has been disseminated widely over social media.
This response is indicative, however, of an ongoing process by which the IDF is forced to compensate for the failure of Israel's political establishment. That the IDF leadership has come under fire from Knesset members for investigating a murder caught on camera is not only a shocking statement of apathy for non-Israeli lives, but an abandonment of political responsibility. In a media storm where critics of Israel are rushing to portray this incident as "more of the same," the IDF has been abandoned by Knesset members who should be supporting a fair and impartial investigation. Militaries sometimes do things that are unpopular. In the US, PFC Bowe Berghdahl was given a hero's welcome upon his release by the Taliban, only to be charged with desertion by the Army. In such cases, political leaders should stress the importance of a fair and thorough judicial process as prescribed by law.
Finally, there is a low appreciation among publics, including the Israeli public, for nuanced responses to terrorism. Importantly, this is not the position of the IDF, which has invested in both non-lethal and semi-lethal weapons systems. A Channel 10 news report frames the Hebron shooting as "an IDF soldier who shot a terrorist and is now being indicted." It omits any reference to the fact that the terrorist in question was incapacitated when shot. Stabbing a soldier may be terrorism but it does not dissolve all legal protections afforded to either civilians or enemy combatants. Support for the soldier seems to be based in a perception that terrorists waive all of their rights after having committed an attack - even if they no longer pose a kinetic threat to soldiers. Even if he had been wearing a suicide vest, it seems unlikely that the IDF's standard operating procedure would call first for shooting the suspected bomber in the head - as opposed to moving at-risk individuals out of a potential blast zone.
The United States has seen similar apathy towards the legal protections of terrorists. In 2014, a majority of Americans supported torture to extract information from suspected terrorists. The point here is that Israelis are by no means unique in their willingness to deny rights protections to terrorists. But whether or not it is popular, such actions may violate international law and the laws of both the United States and Israel.
Finding a balance between rights and security is a core challenge of liberal democracies under threat from terrorism. As a country at the forefront of this fight, Israel's adherence to its own laws and judicial process is what will ultimately allow it to find a balance between the two.