Israeli extrajudicial killings belie narrative of morality

Killing presumed Palestinian attackers without trial is tantamount to the failure of the Israeli state, argues Joseph Dana

Video footage of an Israeli army medic shooting a wounded Palestinian assailant in the head as he lay subdued on the ground is viscerally disturbing but hardly surprising. A video of the execution, caught on tape by Israeli human rights organisation B’Tselem, has set off a firestorm debate about the rule of law in Israel and Palestine.

The video shows two Palestinian men lying motionless on the ground after reportedly stabbing Israeli soldiers in the centre of Hebron. A large group of Israeli soldiers and settlers are busy establishing a crime scene. There is no doubt that the victim poses little threat to the security forces. A voice can be heard asking about one of the attackers in Hebrew: “Is the dog alive?”

Then, a soldier dressed in olive-green military uniform and carrying an M16 assault rifle, walks towards the victim, cocks his gun and shoots the wounded men in the head at point blank range. The soldier doesn’t bother to ask his compatriots to step out of the way. The group surrounding the soldier barely registers the execution that has just taken place before their eyes as the video ends.

This incident comes as part of a wave of violence that started last October. According to the Palestinian Ma’an News Agency, 203 Palestinians and 30 Israelis have been killed in the violence. The attacks have mostly been defined by Palestinians attempting to stab Israeli civilians and soldiers. For the most part, Israeli security forces have responded in self-defence to knife attacks in the moment, but in several cases, forces have carried out extrajudicial killings in which assailants have been killed after they have been arrested or fully subdued. In the West Bank, Israel has carried large arrest raids and punished towns and villages for the actions of individuals.

This month, a Palestinian man attacked a group of people in Jaffa, killing one American tourist before being chased away by security officials. Video emerged of the assailant lying on the ground unable to move after security officials immobilised him. The voices of bystanders can be heard encouraging a police officer to shoot the subdued Palestinian. They are screaming: “Give it to him in the head, don’t be afraid, give it to him in the head.” In the end, the officer listens to the angry crowd and carries out an extrajudicial assassination.

These extrajudicial executions amount to a failure of the state to maintain control. The argument of self-defence holds no water, as the videos clearly demonstrate. Rather, the social contract that gives the state ultimate authority to exercise violence within the boundaries of judicial authority has eroded in Israel. Various arms of state today have difficulty in following, or are unable to follow, the country’s laws.

The strength of laws can only be determined when they are tested in extraordinary circumstances such as in the middle of a wave of stabbings. In this regard, Israeli law has been shown to be hollow. But this shouldn’t come as a surprise.

Israel’s moral compass has all but vanished due to its military occupation on the West Bank. During their compulsory military service, Israel’s youth are sent to the territories, where they dehumanise Palestinians and deny them their civil rights. They rationalise this behaviour with a narrative of victimhood and arguments that Israel has the world’s most moral fighting force. As it builds entire towns and cities on Palestinian land, ­Israel tells itself that the occupation is a temporary measure.

The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is one of the narratives. Tel Aviv has long spun a security narrative over its relationship with the Palestinians, arguing that the conflict is being fought between two relative equals vying for secure and safe states. Rather, the conflict is about rights and the continued deprivation of those rights in a colonial conflict.

Perhaps the most complex and damaging narrative of this entire tragedy is the one that Israelis tell themselves about having a moral army, which serves to obscure the colonial dimension of the occupation and establish international legitimacy for the regime in the West Bank.

That is why Israel’s leadership recently carried out a large-scale campaign of intimidation against Israeli NGOs that expose the inhumane face of Israel’s occupation. Groups such as B’Tselem and the veterans organisation Breaking the Silence, which collects testimonies from former Israeli soldiers about their service in the West Bank and Gaza, have been accused of treason by the most senior politicians in the country.

Growing sectors of mainstream Israeli society find nothing wrong with executing an alleged Palestinian assailant even though he has been subdued. According to a poll by the Israeli Democracy Institute, published last November, 53 per cent of Israelis supported the killing of alleged Palestinians attackers on the spot, even when they no longer posed a threat. The direction of travel in the Israeli consciousness is clear: no amount of violence is too much, and local human rights groups that put a mirror up to Israeli society are little more than traitors. The violence needed to maintain the occupation has created the conditions that justify the use of violence across the society and even outside of judicial boundaries.

Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu said that the Hebron execution doesn’t represent the values of the Israeli army. But the reality is that the killing reflects the values of this occupying army. There is no moral way to carry out this occupation. An army that deprives the unalienable rights of an entire population cannot carry out its mission morally. The continued defence of the inhumane occupation of the West Bank has created a society that sees nothing wrong with the killing of a wounded and subdued man.

The Caribbean writer Frantz Fanon wrote that colonialism is “violence in its natural state”. This wave of carnal executions in Palestine that disregard the judicial machination of the state is a stark demonstration of his point.

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