The United States has joined a chorus of non-governmental organizations and international critics of Israel by calling for an investigation of an incident that took place last week in which two Palestinians were killed following a confrontation with Israeli forces in the West Bank. The Palestinians and various NGOs sympathetic to their cause claim the two, aged 16 and 17 were killed by live fire from Israel Border Police during a demonstration on Nakba Day—the anniversary of Israel’s Declaration of Independence in 1948. What’s more, a video taken from a security camera at a Palestinian-owned business at the site of the confrontation purports to show the two being killed by gunfire while doing nothing that might have provoked the Israelis to shoot. If that evidence is accurate, then the IDF would have been guilty of, at best, using unnecessary force and, at worst, having committed a crime.
But though the world is eager to indict and convict the Israelis of murders that would be seen as validating criticisms about the unjust nature of its “occupation” of the West Bank, no one should jump to any conclusions about this incident. Washington is right about the need for an investigation. But unlike the kangaroo court of international public opinion in which the Israelis already stand convicted, a more sober and less prejudiced probe of what happened may well reveal something very different than the narrative of Israeli brutality and Palestinian victimization. Until we know how much the film produced as evidence was edited and just what the Palestinian demonstrators were doing prior to the shootings, it would be a mistake for anyone, including the Israeli government, to assume that the soldiers were in the wrong.
The first thing that must be ascertained is the context of the deaths. By all accounts, the demonstrators, who had gathered outside an Israeli security facility where Palestinian prisoners have been on a hunger strike, were engaging in violence. If, as has been reported, the Palestinians were throwing rocks and gasoline bombs—both deadly weapons—at the soldiers guarding the prison, the discussion of the soldiers’ response must necessarily be a very different one from the story the Palestinians are telling about peaceful protesters being fired on without provocation. Indeed, even the film of the killings shows one of the deceased wearing a ski mask and the other throwing rocks. While it is not clear whether the violence being used by the Palestinians was sufficient to satisfy the Israeli military’s rules of engagement for the use of fire, this was no Gandhi-like example of peaceful protest. But if the attacks did rise to the level at which the troops felt their lives were in danger—a situation that would certainly apply were the Palestinians approaching with fire bombs as well as rocks—then the soldiers were within their rights to defend themselves.
But if, as a senior Israeli defense official told the Times of Israel today, the film was doctored, then the discussion is entirely different. Why should we think that is possible? That’s because the Palestinians have been guilty of deceptions of this sort in the past. They have often staged such confrontations and then tried to sell the world on the idea that the Israelis had committed an atrocity.
The most outstanding example of such behavior came in 2000 during a firefight between Palestinian gunmen and Israeli soldiers at the Netzarim junction at the start of the Second Intifada. That incident near the border between Israel and Gaza left a 12-year-old Palestinian boy, Mohammed al-Dura, dead. Film taken by a French TV crew seemed to back up the idea that he had been killed by Israeli gunfire and died in his father’s arms, a tragedy that was immortalized in a famous photograph. But subsequent investigations showed that the bullets that hit the boy could not have come from the Israeli position. The French film had been heavily edited and an honest accounting of the story has led objective observers to believe bullets fired by the Palestinians killed the boy. Others are even more skeptical and claim the entire event was a fraud—a Pallywood production in which a credulous world was sold a bill of goods whose only purpose was to smear the Israelis. The fact that the film, which purports to show a demonstration that no one disputes had turned violent, depicts the two casualties merely walking along minding their own business and then falling onto their outstretched palms has rightly raised doubts about its authenticity.
We don’t want to prejudge the investigation of last week’s shootings. But it would appear that, at the very least, the Palestinians who staged the demonstration were doing their best to provoke exactly what happened. The only point of throwing rocks and bombs at armed soldiers is to get them to fire and thus create an international incident. At best, the two Palestinians were merely the latest example of youths who were needlessly sacrificed in order to generate bad publicity for the Israelis. At worst, the story is yet another fraud. Even if the truth lies somewhere in between and Israeli soldiers did fire when perhaps they should not have, responsibility for the incident lies with those who send teenagers into such a situation hoping that they will be injured or killed.
But the most important point about this is that both Israel’s friends and its critics should wait until an investigation is conducted before assuming that the story is as egregious as the Palestinians claim it to be. Those who cry bloody murder at the Israelis today will owe them an apology if, as may well be the case, the film is a fraud and the Nakba killings are a new version of the al-Dura blood libel.