The Israeli army is struggling to deal with discontent within its ranks as many troops have publicly supported a soldier who was imprisoned after being caught on video aiming his weapon at a Palestinian youth and threatening to shoot another. The ensuing political debate has not only revealed an alarming frustration among soldiers on the ground, but a toughening of Israeli public opinion in general.
The controversy started last week when Israeli television showed a video from a Palestinian human rights group in which a soldier from the Nahal Brigade, tasked with safeguarding the Jewish community in the city of Hebron, is seen threateningly aiming his gun at a young Palestinian who was apparently trying to provoke him.
The video shows an altercation between the Palestinian and the soldier which began when the former put his hand on the soldier who responded, “You really shouldn’t do that again.” The two argue until the soldier, obviously feeling threatened, raises his M16 rifle and points it at the Palestinian youth. When the person recording the video steps closer, the soldier tries to kick the cameraman, threatening to shoot him as well unless he stopped videotaping. At that point, more soldiers, as well as Jewish resident of Hebron, arrive, defusing the standoff.
The army officially condemned the soldier’s actions, saying they did “not represent IDF values and expected norms of conduct.” The soldier, David “Hanahlawi” (“of the Nahal Brigade”) was put in military prison. Although it later transpired his imprisonment was due to an unrelated incident, the affair sparked a heated debate within the Israel Defense Forces and the country at large.
The first to respond were soldiers from another combat unit who posted, on an Israeli news website, picture of themselves, faces covered, with signs reading, “We are all David Hanahlawi.”
One of the soldiers in the picture commented, “This is a disgrace. In any other army the Palestinian youth would not have been allowed to get nowhere near the soldier. He acted exactly as he should have.”
Many other soldiers uploaded similar photos of themselves with the same message of support to Facebook and Twitter, in violation of a clear army directive, issued shortly after the incident, reminding soldiers they are legally prohibited from publicly taking part in debates concerning political and military affairs.
A Facebook page opened in support of the soldier quickly received more than 120,000 likes. It claims, “IDF soldiers are sick and tired of being abandoned and used as pawns.”
Politicians, mostly of Israel’s right, have also been quick to voice their support, the most prominent of which was economy and trade minister Naftali Bennett who identified with the soldier.
The incident itself is actually quite routine in the context of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and is definitely not the first. Palestinians often try to provoke soldiers into a violent response which can then be exploited as “proof” of Israel’s brutality as part of an ongoing campaign to delegitimize the Jewish state.
The present political debate, however, which occurs just as the latest attempt to revive the peace process has failed, reveals a reactionary trend: The growing discontent among the Israeli public with military and political leaders who are criticized for not displaying a more firm hand in their dealings with the Palestinians. In light of the recent breakdown in peace talks and the announced reconciliation between the mainstream Palestine Liberation Organization and the militant Islamist group Hamas, this sentiment could well force leaders’ hands when tensions rise again.