August 22, 2019

Hitting activists is bad, but being unprofessional is worse

It is a simple story really: an officer loses his head during a provocative demonstration ‎and hits a demonstrator with his rifle. Direct damage: the demonstrating activist is ‎hurt and hospitalized. Collateral damage: the officer is suspended. More collateral ‎damage: Israel’s image suffers.  ‎


The camera is an effective weapon in the war of attrition waged against Israel. That ‎IDF officers still don’t always recognize this, and still fail to behave accordingly, is ‎mostly a sign of unprofessional work. The officer, Lt. Colonel Shalom Eisner, was not ‎supposed to hit the activist with his rifle in such manner, even if cameras were not ‎present. But being honest I must admit that it is not the unnecessary hitting that I find ‎shocking. Situations like the one in the Jordan Valley often end with some level of ‎pushing, shoving and mild violence. The officer didn’t shoot or torture anyone. He ‎was using excessive force while trying to prevent antagonistic activists from blocking ‎a road (so he says – we still need to wait for more comprehensive investigation for us ‎to have a higher level of confidence in the details). This looks bad, it feels bad, it ‎probably hurt, but the activist was released from hospital quite promptly. ‎

Thus, it is the lack of soldierly professionalism I find most disturbing: an officer at this ‎level should be the one with the cooler head, the one restraining other, lesser officers ‎and soldiers when the goings get tough, the one remembering where the fire is coming ‎from during battle. It is coming from the cameras. ‎

So the officer encountering activists and anarchists and juvenile attention-hungry ‎demonstrators should always beware of the camera. Think about it: What were these ‎demonstrators doing in this remote road, what were they looking for, what were they ‎trying to achieve, what was their goal? It was the video. If this was a battle, it is one ‎in which the IDF lost for no other reason than lack of professionalism. ‎


The Prime Minister of Israel condemned Eisner’s use of excessive force. Benjamin ‎Netanyahu was always very good at understanding the PR war, and was quick to ‎recognize the damage this incident could cause. ‎

‎“Such behavior does not characterize IDF soldiers and officers and has no place in the ‎Israel Defense Forces and in the State of Israel”, the Prime Minister said. But the ‎reasoning for such condemnation remains somewhat vague: Why should “such ‎behavior” have “no place” – is it because hitting an activist is immoral, or is it because ‎it is dumb? ‎

In the coming days, one will hear a lot about morality and the occupation and integrity ‎and democratic values and respecting the freedom of protestation. These are all ‎important and worthy topics of discussion that have nothing to do with Lt. Colonel ‎Eisner’s moment of brutal outrage. This could have happened anywhere, against any ‎demonstrator. It is about keeping one’s cool after hours of provocation, under ‎pressure, in the too-warm weather of the Jordan Valley. Allowing the public to ‎demonstrate is essential, refraining from using excessive force against demonstrators is ‎crucial, tolerating opposing views, as naïve or annoying as they might be, is vital – but ‎letting activists block main roads is not always as important, and tolerating every ‎desire by every quirky group to express its political beliefs at all times and in all places ‎is also not always possible. And yes, when activists from Denmark or whatever ‎country come to Israel, and refuse to clear the road after being specifically asked to do ‎so by soldiers or policemen, they are probably asking for trouble.  ‎


Politicians and activists of Israel’s right were quick to defend Eisner. Some hard core ‎extremists – expectedly and regrettably – argued that Eisner’s deeds were really ‎justified. But most defenders of Eisner were not trying to argue that his behavior was ‎tolerable. They were merely asking that Eisner would not be judged based on a ten-‎second video clip and were condemning the “kangaroo court against a person who is ‎devoting his life to our homeland, without an inquiry and without learning what ‎happened”, as MK Zvulun Orlev of the Jewish Home Party phrased it. While it is easy ‎to sympathize with such pleading – I don’t know Eisner but am certain that he is a ‎dedicated public servant – a kangaroo court is unavoidable in this kangaroo world of ‎PR wars. Eisner’s deeds were only significant because they were made public – and ‎Eisner’s punishment will only have meaning if it is made public, fast. Should a good ‎officer pay such high price – maybe end his years-long career – over one moment of ‎hasty reaction? Probably not. But that is not a discussion anyone should be having ‎now. That is a topic for a more discreet discussion later.‎

And three more short comments:‎


That Eisner is wearing a yarmulke is not going to help him much. You can already see ‎the signs: religious politicians defending him, turning him into a cause, secular-leftist ‎politicians also making him a symbol of IDF religious radicalization. ‎

‎2. ‎

That Central Command’s relatively new chief, General Nitzan Alon, is considered by ‎some settlers to be an “extreme leftist” complicates things even more. In his long ‎service in the West Bank, Alon encountered settlers yelling “traitor”, attacking his ‎vehicle, picketing his home, waving signs against him. Now he had to suspend a ‎yarmulke-wearing officer for beating a lefty-activist. This can easily become yet ‎another excruciatingly boring right-left war over Alon’s credentials and policies ‎‎(though that Netanyahu quickly backed up Alon’s decision might be helpful in ‎preventing it from happening this time). ‎


‎20-year-old Danish activist Andreas Ayas told Army Radio today (yes, the interview ‎was done by the radio of the same IDF from which Lt. Colonel Eisner hails)  that he ‎wasn’t surprised by the officer’s actions, since he and his friends had “seen this kind of ‎violence many times before”. I do not believe him – and for one reason: if such ‎violence had been used “many times before”, similar videos would have emerged far ‎more often. Rarely can anyone find an activist protesting in the West Bank without a ‎camera.‎