Executions or Protocol? What the IDF Learned from Secondary Terror Attacks

Last Thursday, another stabbing attack — one not so different than any of the other 211 stabbing attacks carried out against Israelis since last October — took place in Hebron.

What We Know and What We Don’t Know

Two young Palestinian men stabbed an Israeli soldier, and were subsequently shot by nearby troops.

A video filmed by a Palestinian activist volunteering for the Israeli human rights organization B’Tselem shows one of the attackers lying on the ground and moving slightly while soldiers stand around. Minutes later, additional soldiers arrive at the scene. One soldier is seen cocking his rifle, walking towards the injured stabber, and shooting him in the head.

Even before the video was posted online and went viral, the incident was reported up the IDF’s chain of command and an operational investigation began – much of this is already known. The soldier claimed that he saw the Palestinian move while wearing a jacket on a hot day, and suspected that the man might be trying to trigger a hidden suicide vest. So he took preemptive action.

Accounts differ, which make understanding this case tricky – at least until all the details of the investigation and the results of the trial are released.

The IDF investigation, undertaken well before the video went public, noted that the soldier said, “anyone who shoots my friends deserves to die,” both before and after the act. The investigation also found that the first soldiers on the scene checked the stabber’s body for explosives and distanced his knife. However, the soldier who shot the Palestinian may not have been aware of this. Other accounts noted an argument between the soldier and others, including the sapper, as to whether the wounded attacker was still alive. The private investigation carried out by Magen David Adom, Israel’s equivalent of the Red Cross, also noted confusion on this issue, as their medics were prevented from aiding the injured Palestinian until the bomb disposal unit cleared him.

The Israeli soldier was taken into custody until the matter could be investigated, which led to a heated political debate that has taken the country by storm. The left-wing is bemoaning the erosion of the IDF’s “moral compass” and the damage to its “purity of arms” doctrine, which holds that a neutralized enemy cannot be harmed. The right-wing is outraged at what it sees as the “further tying of soldiers’ hands” in the fight against terror, or the abandonment of “our boys in the field,” particularly by Chief of Staff Gadi Eisenkot, Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon, and Prime Minster Benjamin Netanyahu. All three officials quickly emphasized that the shooting was contrary to IDF protocol, and that the matter would be investigated thoroughly by the IDF’s Judge Advocate General.

What the Soldier Was Supposed to Do

IDF orders are clear. Soldiers are required to act to neutralize threats to themselves and their surroundings. A clear and actionable threat includes intent and means, as every recruit learns in basic training. And even then, if at all possible, orders are to neutralize first without opening fire, then to shoot to injure but not kill, and only to shoot to kill if absolutely necessary. In a case where an assailant is injured or dead and is suspected of wearing a suicide vest, the correct procedure would have been to clear the area and not shoot, lest the bullet detonate the explosives. The only time a neutralized attacker should be shot is if they are attempting to activate the trigger on an explosive belt – upon which a shot to the head would be the correct response. A body-shot would run the risk of detonating the explosives.

It is likely that the soldier in question was not aware that the first troops on the scene had already checked the stabber for a suicide vest. Without speculating too much, it will likely emerge that the soldier may have had reason to suspect the man still presented a danger, but, even so, acted inappropriately and against protocol.

Field Executions

This incident, clearly caught on camera, will only add fuel to accusations by Arab, human rights, and left-wing (both in Israel and abroad) organizations that Israel is conducting extra-judicial “field executions” of terrorists who no longer present a threat. This, not to mention the outcry that the injured attacker lay there for minutes without receiving medical attention. Human Rights Watch, while condemning Palestinian terrorism, questioned this “dangerous climate of impunity for war crimes,” and suggested that this was not the first assailant to be illegally “executed” when less force would have sufficed.

The Israeli human rights group B’tselem, which released the footage of the incident, also claimed that it came from an atmosphere of inflammatory remarks by right-wing politicians and a public that dehumanizes Palestinians.

Even some in the United States Congress, generally the most supportive institution when it comes to Israel’s security, are showing signs of discomfort. Just this week, a letter from Sen. Pat Leahy (D – Vt.) and 10 House members asked Secretary of State John Kerry to investigate claims of Israeli (and Egyptian) “gross violations of human rights” — which Leahy seeks to link to defense aid. Most, save some of Israel’s biggest enemies — from Hamas, Hezbollah, Iran, and those on the very far reaches of the left-wing in Europe and the U.S. — understandably acknowledge and support Israel’s right to defend itself from Palestinian terrorism. Yet many call into question the necessity of “shoot to kill.” While it is best to leave this individual soldier’s fate to the IDF’s independent judicial system and strict code of conduct, it’s worthwhile to view the event through two perspectives — operational and psychological.

An Operational Perspective on Palestinian Terrorism

The IDF is known to be relatively self-restraining in its rules of engagement, at least compared to other modern militaries fighting Low Intensity Conflicts, of which terrorism is one manifestation. A look at the number of recent terrorist attacks and the corresponding number of Palestinian deaths can illustrate this. There have been 211 stabbing attacks, 83 shootings, and 42 vehicular attacks between October 2015 and March 2016. This means that of the 336 total attacks, 23 of which involved two or even three terrorists, Israeli security forces have killed about 130 terrorists during or immediately after the act.

Militaries and police forces have the duty and responsibility to neutralize threats. If an assailant is downed without being killed, and is clearly no longer a threat, he or she is then to be kept alive, protected, and treated medically if necessary. The IDF’s record shows that this has mostly been the case.

However, if there is no time to react or if there could be a continued threat from a wounded or even dead assailant, then no chance can be taken with soldiers’ or bystanders’ lives. And, unlike the field of conventional combat, where prisoners of war are expected to be treated fairly and eventually returned in exchange for their surrender (at least by democracies), terrorists know no such boundaries.

Israelis have learned all too harshly that terrorists don’t play by the same rules by which the IDF and other armies operate – that is, in fact, the very nature of terrorism. Unlike armies, which seek to capture territory or strategic locations and resources, terrorists seek to kill and frighten as much as they can. That includes planning sequential attacks meant to kill those who arrive on the scene after the initial attack is over, simultaneous attacks meant to overwhelm and shock, attacks in teams, and even an attack in which a stabber or shooter detonates a suicide vest after they are “neutralized”.

Examples of this tactic abound. In 1995, at a bus stop packed with soldiers in Beit Lid in Israel, a Palestinian suicide bomber detonated himself. Minutes later, after many came to assist the injured, a second suicide bomber blew himself up. In all, 21 Israelis were killed and dozens injured. Over the next decade, Israel would suffer eight more such attacks, using simultaneous or staggered explosions and multiple terrorists.

Terrorists are also innovative. In 2004, at the Erez border crossing between the Gaza Strip and Israel, a terrorist was caught with “suicide underpants” (as opposed to the more common vest) and neutralized without being killed. These undergarments were designed to bypass the usual inspection of lifting up one’s shirt. A soldier’s suspicion at a fake ID carried by the terrorist ultimately alerted the guards.

One especially difficult situation, which recalls last week’s incident in Hebron, has been covered in the Israeli press. In 2005, an IDF patrol intercepted a cab carrying young Palestinian men, one of whom was wearing a coat on a similarly warm day. As the soldier on sight recalled, he aimed his rifle at the ostensibly unarmed man, after which he got into an argument with his commander about whether he should shoot the man or not. The commander ordered the soldier to obey the strict rules of engagement, despite his suspicions, and not to shoot the man. Tragically, before they could react, the terrorist detonated his explosive vest, instantly killing the commander and badly wounding the soldier and others.

More recently, in October of last year, there was a horrifying terrorist attack in Jerusalem. In this graphic video, a Palestinian driver is seen ramming his car into two pedestrians at a bus-stop. The Palestinian then got out of his car with a meat-cleaver and hacked one passerby to death. A nearby security guard rushed over and shot the Palestinian, but the man continued attempting to attack those around him until he was stopped by the guard and other passersby.

Even more recently, three Palestinian men carried out a complex attack with knives and machine guns at the Damascus Gate entrance to the Old City of Jerusalem. The three were killed after a protracted shootout with police, but not before managing to kill a policewoman who thwarted a larger attack. Police discovered undetonated explosives on the terrorists.

Since October 2015, 25 of the over 300 attacks were carried out by two or three attackers – meant to surprise and overwhelm security forces, and to maximize the carnage.

Thus, it’s safe to say that the soldiers of the IDF have learned the lessons of handling such attacks the hard way. Terrorists strive to achieve the effect of surprise – whether through hidden suicide vests, by working in teams, or continuing to attack even after being “neutralized.”

A Psychological Perspective on Palestinian Terrorism

This leads to a second point – the emotional scarring these young soldiers undergo when serving day in and day out in an environment where terrorists don’t wear uniforms and utilize the element of surprise. A number of the terrorists this past year were even children, some as young as 12 and 13, who carried school bags. In this setting, where everyone is a suspect, where rules apply to only one side, where any trick will be used to kill more innocents, and where many terrorists prefer death over jail, it’s no wonder that the soldier and others in similar positions may feel that they could not be truly safe unless they were certain that the threat was completely neutralized.

Field Trials

The current “field trials” – both of the soldier, but more significantly of the IDF and Israel, are misplaced, misleading, and premature. The IDF will complete its investigation, place the soldier on trial, and deal with him appropriately, as it started to do even before the video of the incident was ever released. If, as it seems, the soldier acted mistakenly but not maliciously, he will receive the appropriate punishment. This will be to the dismay of those who would call him a murderer on one side, and those who would call him a hero on the other. The IDF, like other armies after all, is comprised of human beings who are susceptible to error.

The IDF’s procedures for dealing with the soldier will convey an important message to those sitting in judgment over Israel and making outlandish claims of extra-judicial executions. Unlike the U.S. and Europe, which have experienced but a handful of terrorist attacks recently, Israel has had to endure decades filled with hundreds of such attacks. Thus, those questioning or criticizing Israel’s “disproportionate response” or “extra-judicial executions” would do well to remember that, quite often, a “neutralized” terrorist is not necessarily neutralized, and that these kinds of decisions are not made behind the desks of politicians, journalists, or academics, but in the heat and confusion of battle, where a split second can mean the difference between life and death.

Dan Feferman is a major (res.) in the Israel Defense Forces, where he served as a foreign policy strategist and planner and an intelligence officer. He researches, writes, and speaks about Middle East security and diplomacy matters.

[Photo: Flash90 ]