Israeli emergency personnel and security forces work at the scene of what Israeli police said was a stabbing attack by two Palestinians on two Israelis in the West Bank Jewish settlement of Beit Horon near Jerusalem on January 25, 2016.
“It’s not just about potentially rogue soldiers, but also about senior Israeli officials who publicly tell security forces to unlawfully shoot to kill,” said Sari Bashi, Israel advocacy director at Human Rights Watch. “Whatever the results of trials of individual soldiers, the Israeli government should issue clear directives to use force only in accordance with international law.
Elor Azaria, a 20-year-old Israeli soldier, is on trial for the March 24, 2016, fatal shooting of 21-year-old Abd al-Fatah al-Sharif. Al-Sharif stabbed and wounded an Israeli soldier in the West Bank city of Hebron. At issue in the trial is Azaria’s shooting of Sharif after he had been shot and injured by Israeli security officials.
There have been more than 150 instances since October 2015 in which security forces fatally shot Palestinian adults and children suspected of trying to stab, run over, or shoot Israelis in Israel and the West Bank. During that time, Palestinian assailants have killed 33 Israelis, including passersby and security officials, in Israel and the West Bank. Human Rights Watch has repeatedly condemned Palestinian attacks against Israeli civilians.
International human rights law limits the intentional lethal use of firearms – shooting to kill – to circumstances in which it is strictly necessary to protect life, and in which no other, less extreme, option is viable. The Israeli open fire regulations do not note this limitation but do limit shooting at a person’s torso or head to situations in which it is necessary to prevent an imminent threat of death or serious bodily injury.
However, the calls by officials – and the apparent conduct of some soldiers and police – deviate from both international standards and the Israeli rules of engagement. With some notable exceptions, senior Israeli officials, including those who command security officers, have in some cases called for excessive use of force and in other cases failed to condemn such calls by others.
In one example, following a stabbing attack that injured two Israeli passersby in West Jerusalem on October 10, 2015, police fatally shot the 16-year-old Palestinian suspect. Jerusalem Police District Commander Moshe Edri told reporters that those who carry out attacks should be killed: “The police are doing their job and arriving quickly. Within less than a minute and a half, the attacker had already been killed. Everyone who stabs Jews or harms innocent people – should be killed.” Whatever justification may or may not have existed for shooting the child, Edri’s final statement appears to be a call to kill all persons who use violence, even after they no longer pose a threat.
In October 2015, a radio interviewer asked Israeli Police Minister Gilad Erdan if he agreed with a statement by a lawmaker from an opposition party that “if a terrorist has a knife or screwdriver in his hand, you should shoot to kill him without thinking twice.”
Erdan said yes: “Definitely. The question of course depends on the circumstances. There are clear instructions to the Israeli police. As soon as a police officer feels danger to himself or any other citizen, he needs to shoot according to the regulations. It’s clear. We don’t want to endanger any citizen or police officer. And also, every attacker who sets out to inflict harm should know that he will likely not survive the attack.”
In contrast, the army Chief of Staff Maj. Gen. Gadi Eisenkot gave a clear admonition to follow the Israeli military’s rules of engagement, telling a group of students on February 17, 2016, that “the IDF [Israel Defense Forces] cannot speak in slogans such as, ‘if someone comes to kill you, arise to kill him first.’ A soldier can only unlock the safety catch if there is a threat to him or his fellow soldiers … I don’t want a soldier to empty a magazine on a girl holding scissors.”
The next day, two 14-year-old Palestinians were arrested after allegedly fatally stabbing an Israeli soldier and injuring a passerby in a supermarket in the West Bank. Transportation Minister and cabinet member, Yisrael Katz, of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud party, referred to the incident on Facebook, saying that: “The attackers were caught and remained alive. I hope that the statements of the chief of staff, whom I appreciate and commend, against the automatic shooting of minors, were not misunderstood, causing hesitation and endangering lives. Because sometimes the message is greater than the words. The restrictions and codes are clear, but we cannot let attackers remain alive, risking the lives of Jews.”
In the wake of the publication of a video of the al-Sharif killing, Israeli officials, including Netanyahu, then-Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon, and Eisenkot affirmed the need to obey the Israeli military’s rules of engagement, which limit the use of force to situations in which there is a threat of death or serious bodily injury and, in some circumstances, to stop fleeing suspects. Yaalon, however, was soon replaced by the current defense minister, Avigdor Lieberman, who in October 2015, when he was an opposition member of the Knesset, the Israeli Parliament, wrote on his Facebook page that the government should adopt a policy that “no attacker, male or female, should make it out of any attack alive.”
Given the prevalence and prominence of statements encouraging security forces to shoot to kill even when not strictly necessary to protect life, and persistent and credible allegations of excessive use of force, Netanyahu and senior security officials should issue strong public and private admonitions to intentionally use lethal force only when strictly necessary to protect life.
The authorities should regulate the use of force by soldiers and police and conduct credible investigations of all cases in which suspicions of excessive use of force, including extrajudicial killings, arise. The authorities should also change the rules of engagement to limit intentionally lethal use of force to situations in which it is strictly necessary to protect life, in accordance with international standards.
“Now is the perfect moment for the top officials of the country to repudiate the shoot-to-kill rhetoric and clearly outline the limitations on soldiers and police opening fire to kill,” Bashi said.
The Use of Lethal Force
Statements by senior Israeli officials, including those at the top of the chain of command, encourage violation of both the international standards regarding the use of force as well as the rules of engagement that Israel issues to its soldiers and police officers. In some cases, officials directly responsible for the conduct of law enforcement officers have publicly encouraged them to kill rather than to arrest suspected attackers when feasible. In other cases, senior political and religious officials who are employed and paid by the government have encouraged the killing of suspected Palestinian attackers, and other senior officials have failed to repudiate those statements.
In many of the more than 150 cases since October 2015, in which Israeli security forces fatally shot Palestinians who allegedly attacked or tried to attack Israelis with knives, guns, or motor vehicles, video footage and/or witness accounts raise serious questions about the necessity of the use of lethal force. Amnesty International, the Palestinian human rights group Al Haq and a coalition of nine Israeli human rights groups have called on Israeli officials to rein in excessive use of force. Citing video footage, forensic evidence, and eyewitness accounts in many of the more than 150 cases in which security officials lethally shot suspected attackers, the groups have said that security forces appear to have killed Palestinians after they no longer posed a threat, killed Palestinians who did not appear to be carrying out an attack at all, or used lethal force to subdue attackers when non-lethal force would have sufficed.
While the Israeli authorities conduct criminal investigations into every fatal shooting of Palestinians by security forces in the West Bank, Azaria is the only security officer to face trial for the shooting death of a Palestinian in the past year.
In October 2015, the Association for Civil Rights in Israel wrote to Israel’s attorney general, expressing concern about official endorsements of a shoot-to-kill policy and demanding investigations into two alleged cases of excessive use of force. In a response letter, the Attorney General’s Office affirmed the need to follow the rules of engagement and said that the attorney general had reminded police and government officials to do so. “Shooting after the threat of harm to life or limb has already been thwarted would violate the provisions of the law,” the letter said.
Yet official endorsement of a shoot-to-kill policy continues.
Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef, who holds the state-funded, statutory position of Israel’s Chief Sephardic Rabbi, said in a March 12, 2016 sermon, partly in response to Eisenkot’s admonition to limit the use of lethal force, that the Bible authorizes a shoot-to-kill policy: “‘Whoever comes to kill you, rise up and kill him first.’ … let them afterward take you to the High Court of Justice or bring some military chief of staff who will say something else … As soon as an attacker knows that if he comes with a knife, he won’t return alive, it will deter them. That’s why it’s a religious commandment to kill him.”
The Sephardic Chief Rabbi does not command police or soldiers, but he heads the Supreme Rabbinical Tribunal and is tasked with advising on the interpretation of religious law. He is chosen by a committee composed of public officials and more junior state-appointed rabbis and is the state-appointed authority on religious law for the roughly half of Jewish Israelis of Arab or Eastern descent. Netanyahu did not publicly repudiate Yosef’s statement.
Such statements are also coming from politicians inside Netanyahu’s government. For example, Bezalel Smotrich of the Jewish Home Party, part of Netanyahu’s coalition, said in a February 2016 speech in the Knesset that: “An attacker who sets out to kill a Jew because he’s a Jew, whatever his age, does not make it out alive. Period.” Smotrich has repeated that statement multiple times since then on social media. Another lawmaker, Naavah Boker, from Netanyahu’s Likud party, said in an interview on April 21, 2016 that: “A terrorist should simply be killed,” also quoting the Biblical passage that “whoever comes to kill you, rise up and kill him first.”
In July, Eisenkot reaffirmed his support for the incoming Chief Military Rabbi, Eyal Karim, after records came to light showing that, in 2003, Karim told religious followers that “suicide attackers who have been injured, should be killed.” Eisenkot distanced himself from that statement and others considered contrary to the military’s policy but confirmed that he would still give Karim the army’s top religious post. In August, female lawmakers from the left-wing Meretz party petitioned Israel’s Supreme Court to block the appointment, citing Karim’s statements against integrating women in the army and negative comments he made about the LGBT community and non-Jewish soldiers. The petition was withdrawn after Karim articulated more moderate positions consistent with IDF policy on the above-mentioned issues. He did not address or repudiate his statements about killing “attackers who have been injured”. On December 2, 2016, he was sworn in as the Chief Military Rabbi.
Public Opinion, Support
According to Israel’s Central Bureau of Statistics, about half of Jewish Israelis define themselves as religious or traditional, not including ultra-Orthodox Jews, who usually do not serve in the army. Conscription for non-ultra-Orthodox Jewish men is universal. Most soldiers are in their teens or early 20s, and after a few months of basic training, they can be sent to serve in the occupied West Bank.