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Free hand to shoot in Israel

The killing of a Palestinian girl in Hebron seems like a result of the political atmosphere calling for toughening measures against Palestinians. It may end in a new intifada

Yom Kippur (Day of Atonement) is the holiest day on the Jewish calendar. In Israel it means that all public activity is forbidden, including television and radio broadcasts. Therefore, the news edition ending Yom Kippur's fast serves as a summary of all that happened in the last 24 hours in Israel. 

The news edition of Wednesday this week on 24 September, the first after the fast ended, opened in a very low key. Yom Kippur has passed without any extraordinary security events in Jerusalem and the West Bank -  the viewers were told - "the whole area was quiet and calm".

Not quite. The day before, on Yom Kippur's eve, Hadeel al-Hashlamon, an 18-year-old Palestinian woman from Hebron, was shot dead by Israeli soldiers at a checkpoint in the city. The Israeli army claimed that al-Hashlamon refused to obey the soldiers' orders, pulled a knive, tried to stab them and then was shot, first in her legs and later in the upper part of her body.

Palestinian eye witnesses told a very different story. According to them, al-Haslamon did not understand what the soldiers were shouting at her in Hebrew, refused to uncover the nikab she was wearing and was shot on the spot for no apparent reason. They denied she was carrying a knife.

Still pictures of two soldiers pointing their guns at al-Hashlamon before she was shot and a video taken after the shooting, indicate that even if the young Palestinian was carrying a knife, she hardly posed a threat to soldiers. The soldiers were surely late in giving her medical care. Amnesty International claimed in its report that the evidence indicated the al-Hashlamon killing was "an extrajudicial execution".

Maybe Israel's Second Channel was not far from truth when it did not treat al-Hashlamon's killing as an extraordinary event. More than 8,000 Palestinians, many of them civilians, have been killed by Israeli security forces since the beginning of the Second Intifada in October 2000, yet according to a report by Yesh Din, an Israeli human right organisation, only in 16 cases soldiers were indicted in charges relating to the killing of Palestinian civilians during this period. At the same time thousands of Palestinians were convicted of killing more than 1,200 Israeli civilians and soldiers.  

Only one soldier was convicted of manslaughter - he was sent to eight years in prison - since October 2000. Michael Sfard, an Israeli lawyer specialized in human rights, remarks that this was a unique case. The victim was not a Palestinian but a British volunteer, Tom Hurndall,  and the soldier was an Israeli of Bedouin origin. Therefore, the chances that the soldiers who shot al-Hashlamon will even be investigated, let alone indicted or convicted, seem close to zero.   

But in the eyes of the Israeli government, its security forces and judicial system are too lenient on Palestinians, not the other way around. On Thursday, two days after al-Hashlamon's killing, the Israeli cabinet decided to "relax" the rules for opening fire by its security forces and to set a minimum four years prison term for throwing "deadly objects" such as rocks and fire bombs.  

This decision was portrayed as an answer to the growing violence by Palestinians, especially in Jerusalem and in other parts of the West Bank. The most dramatic case occurred early last week in Jerusalem when a Jewish resident died of a heart attack after his car was attacked by rocks. It is not clear what exactly the new opening-fire rules mean, but they will certainly include the use of snipers against suspected rock-throwers if they pose a threat to security forces or civilians.

Sfard claims that this use of snipers might be problematic. "Soldiers and policemen are allowed to shoot to kill only if they are in danger for their lives or for the lives of other civilians," he says. Snipers are usually not in danger, and therefore their use against civilians is not welcomed, he adds.

Sfard also claims that minimum punishments for rock-throwers seem exaggerated. "There is no minimum punishment for rapists," he notes. "Is throwing stones worse than rape?" Sfard, who grew up in Jerusalem, remembers orthodox Jews throwing rocks at cars travelling on Saturdays, the Jewish holy day. Nobody dared to use snipers against them or sent them to prison for a minimum of four years. The intention to use these methods against Palestinians seems discriminatory.

The impression is that the new methods decided by the Israeli cabinet have more to do with politics than with security. Neither the command of the Israeli security forces nor the Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon pushed for these new measures. The initiative came from other right-wing ministers.

Miri Regev, the present culture minister and ex-spokesperson of the Israeli Army, called to change the opening-fire rules after an incident in which an Israeli soldier was seized and slightly beaten by Palestinian women after he violently arrested a Palestinian boy in the village of Nabi Salah a month ago.  "Anyone who tries to harm Israeli civilians and soldiers needs to know his blood is in his head,” Regev wrote on Facebook.

Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked from the Jewish Home party was the chief promoter of the minimum punishment clause for rock throwers, against the will of Attorney General Yehuda Weinstein. Shaked, who notoriously adopted a call to declare the entire Palestinian people as an enemy "including its elderly and its women" when she was a member of parliament, also pushes forward a new anti-terror law, according to which administrative arrests will be legalised and "terror supporters," including those waving flags or writing a post in social media, will be sentenced to three years in prison.

Internal Security Minister Gil'ad Erdan was the one who pushed to toughen the opening fire rules for policemen in Jerusalem. The same Erdan did not hesitate to threaten Israeli judges that they will not be promoted if they issue lenient sentences on Palestinian rock-throwers. Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu's remarks about his intention to change the situation in which throwing these deadly objects "will not go unanswered," seem mild compared with the mood of his ministers.

The shooting incident in Hebron came two days before the cabinet decision, but it would not be too much to believe that the atmosphere emanating from this kind of discourse did have an influence on the soldiers there. Israeli politicians seem more trigger happy than the army command or even the soldiers themselves.

From 1977 onwards, Israel has been governed by right-wing coalitions, except for brief periods of centre-left rule. Yet many right wing voters and politicians complain that the real power remained in the hands "left-wing elites" in the judicial system, in the public administration or even in the security forces.

The last elections led to a formation of a right-wing coalition, without centrist or leftist partners for the first time in many years. This seems like an opportunity for the young generation of Israeli right-wing politicians like Erdan, Shaked, Regev, Education Minister Naftaly Bennet and others to prove that they can make a difference and change the course of Israeli politics.

Bennet, the head of the Jewish Home party, called the right-wing camp "to stop apologising" in his last election campaign. His call is now answered fully. This new generation of politicians has no intention to apologise for being right-wingers. On the contrary. They show every intention to force Israeli left-wingers, presumed or real, to apologize for supporting odd issues like human rights for Palestinians.

The nomination of the current deputy head of the General Security Service (Shabak) as the leading candidate for the post of police chief, seems like a step in the same direction. The new  candidate, suggested by Erdan and approved by Netanyahu, comes from within the settler community and until recently lived in a settlement in the West Bank. His political background as well as the fact that he comes from an organisation which deals directly with the control over Palestinian lives, sets a clear signal as to where Erdan is aiming.

The big question is how much of this right-wing rhetoric will effectively influence Israel's policy on the ground. The military does not seem too enthusiastic to change dramatically the rules of engagement with the Palestinians and neither do important elements in the police and judiciary system. They are afraid of a new intifada. Some Israeli politicians, it seems, are not. 

- Meron Rapoport is an Israeli journalist and writer, winner of the Napoli International Prize for Journalism for a inquiry about the stealing of olive trees from their Palestinian owners. He is ex-head of the News Department in Haaertz, and now an independent journalist.

​The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye. 

Photo: An Israeli soldier points his gun at Palestinians protesting in the West Bank city of Hebron (AFP)

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