“Our soldier is a hero,” reads a poster that appeared in the town of Beit Shemesh, near Jerusalem. It’s just one of many that have appeared in recent days to support the Israeli soldier who killed a disabled Palestinian assailant in cold blood Thursday. The victim, Abdel Fattah al Sharif, 21, had stabbed a soldier in Hebron and lay wounded and motionless on the asphalt when an IDF soldier suddenly shot him in the head.
That story emerged thanks to a video filmed by a Palestinian activist with The Israeli Information Center for Human Rights in the Occupied Territories. But even as groups around the world are calling for swift justice, many Israelis are proclaiming the soldier, whom the authorities have not named, a hero who “did the right thing.” A public petition asking the military to award him the Medal of Honor has been signed by more than 50,000 Israelis. Meanwhile, the Palestinian who caught the killing on camera says settlers in Tel Rumeida have threatened to burn down his house if he doesn’t leave Hebron.
The killing triggered protests against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and heads of the armed forces, who condemned the summary execution and approved the soldier’s arrest. But on the other side, ultra-nationalist politicians, starting with Education Minister Maftali Bennett, criticized the government for investigating a soldier who “loves his fatherland” and “has done his duty.”
The soldier’s family and friends argue that he killed the Palestinian because he feared he might operate an explosive vest hidden under his jacket. But that theory is refuted by testimony from another soldier who reported to his commander that before pulling the trigger his colleague had said “the terrorist had hurt his friend and deserved to die.” The wounded soldier was only slightly injured from the stabbing.
The motives of the soldier, however, matter little to most Israelis who support such actions. A survey conducted by Channel 2 television network shows that 57 percent of Israelis oppose the soldier being arrested for prosecution. Forty-two percent believe the killing was the “responsible” thing to do, and 24 percent say it was a natural reaction. Only 19 percent say the soldier went beyond his orders, and just 5 percent call the killing murder and endorse the actions taken by Netanyahu and the military. On social media, comments are filled with even more radical responses than those in the survey. Facebook pages praise the soldier’s “courage” and exhort us all to follow his example.
These reactions speak to the influence that politicians and religious extremists have on Israeli society and young soldiers. A few weeks ago the Sephardi Chief Rabbi of Israel, Yitzhak Yosef, said it was a religious duty for soldiers to kill anyone who attacks them, even if military leaders and the courts say otherwise. This month he also said that “non-Jews shouldn’t live in the land of Israel.”
You can also count on the continuing stream of xenophobic bills presented by Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked. The latest, approved two days ago by her fellow ministers, would allow judges to punish Palestinian children younger than 14 with prison for acts of terrorism, a term interpreted so broadly it could include throwing stones at a settler’s car. “Terrorism has no age,” Shaked said. “And today there are no penalties corresponding to the cruel reality that we face. If we want to create a deterrent and a change of reality, then we must make the necessary changes.”
In Hebron, Thursday’s execution is considered the rule rather than the exception since the Intifada began in Jerusalem in October. Average Palestinians in the occupied territories, therefore, do not seem to be following developments in the case carefully. But political leaders have voiced their outrage, including Saeb Erekat, head of the PLO, who asked the United Nations to open an official investigation during a meeting with U.N. envoy Nickolay Mladenov.