Regrets but never an apology: When the IDF makes ‘mistakes’

For Jews, Yom Kippur is a time to ask forgiveness from those one has harmed during the course of the year. The Israeli army has a hard time with the concept of saying it is sorry or asking forgiveness. Regretful? Sure. Sorry? Not when the victim is Palestinian.

By Noam Rotem

Funeral for the 26 members of the Abu Jame’ family, who were killed the previous day during an Israeli stike on the Bani Suhaila neighborhood of Khan Younis, Gaza Strip, July 21, 2014. Basel Yazouri / Activestills.org
Funeral for the 26 members of the Abu Jame’ family, who were killed the previous day during an Israeli stike on the Bani Suhaila neighborhood of Khan Younis, Gaza Strip, July 21, 2014. Basel Yazouri / Activestills.org

Ma’amoun al-Dam was 12 years old when he left his house to play in a nearby field and an inexplicable chain of events led to an Israeli Air Force jet shooting a missile at him, killing him on the spot. “We found no fault in this attack, despite the regrettable outcome,” the military prosecution said in a statement about the tragic end to this innocent child. “There was no evidence to support a conclusion that the attack was carried out illegally.”

The Israeli army has killed hundreds of Palestinian children in recent years, but it has said sorry a grand total of no times. Al-Dam’s case is just one example of the creative ways the IDF apologizes. Or rather, the ways it does everything in its power to avoid asking for forgiveness. Often times it “regrets,” or it “didn’t intend to,” or it “looks into the incident” and comes out clean — there’s always some coincidence in which innocent civilians are killed by the IDF, which admits to their innocence but never asks for forgiveness for killing them.

That was the case for Lubna al-Hanash, a 21-year-old political science student from Bethlehem, who was killed while walking to her college with friends in 2013. The IDF recognizes the fact that she was innocent, and that Lt.-Col. Shachar Safda and his driver shot her to death. “But to our great regret,” the MAG concluded, Lubna’s death was not the result of negligence or any other criminal offense committed by the soldiers. In other words: shit happens.

Khalil ‘Anati was only 10 years old when an Israeli soldier drove into the al-Fawwar Refugee Camp in the West Bank, opened his jeep’s door, and fired a single shot into his back. “The IDF regrets his death,” the army spokesperson said at the time. Not a mistake, god forbid, or something one should apologize for. One can only regret that such things happen in this cruel world.

Iyad Abu Khusah, one and a half years old from the al-Bureij Refugee Camp in Gaza, could only wish that party responsible for firing the explosives that killed him might express regret — or even condolences. “No strike by IDF forces [matches] the particulars of the complaint,” IDF Operational Affairs Prosecutor Ronen Hirsh concluded about the air strike that killed the toddler.

The same goes for four-year-old Muhammad Hejazi and his two-year-old brother Suhaib from the Jabalya Refugee Camp in Gaza, who were killed along with their father Fuad by a bomb dropped, apparently in error, by the Israel Defense Forces. “Despite the fact that it is indisputable that three people died as a result of the attack,” the MAG said in a statement to B’Tselem, “there is no indication that the attack was disproportionate.”

The IDF MAG also expressed regret over the deaths of the four young boys slaughtered by an Israeli missile on the Gaza beach.* Don’t mistake expressing regret for assigning responsibility, or asking forgiveness from the families — just regret. The missile fired at the “Salam (Peace) Tower” in Gaza that took the lives of 15 members of the al-Kilani and Darbas families also managed to extract a little regret from the MAG. Regret that buildings tend to suddenly collapse on their innocent residents when they are struck by missiles.

Actually, one of the only two incidents in which a direct apology was made by a junior IDF officer, reported by Yossi Gurvitz on the Yesh Din blog (Hebrew), was when settlers torched Palestinian-owned cars in the West Bank town of Dir Jarir. “Whoever did this are animals, I’m embarrassed and I apologize in the name of the State of Israel,” a young officer said. The second case was an IDF officer apologizing for a grenade that was tossed into a home in which the Abu Haniyeh family was sleeping in Kfar Yanoun, after which soldiers returned to apologize. No senior officer was involved.

Despite the regret of the uniformed prosecutors, most of the cases here ended without guilt being assigned, and some without even an investigation. The IDF, the most moral army in Israel and the territories it controls, is never guilty. It will never formally apologize. It is liable to express regret, but never ask for forgiveness.

The people’s army has come to reflect the national narrative sold to us by Naftali Bennett, who seeks an end to what he termed a culture of apologies. That passive worldview, in which things happen but they are never anybody’s fault, or at least the fault of anybody on the Israeli side, is a worldview that grants full immunity to oneself. We have nothing to apologize for because we didn’t do anything. And if we did do it then it wasn’t on purpose. And if it was on purpose then surely there was a good reason. And if there wasn’t a good reason then it wasn’t illegal. And if it was illegal then it is simply routine. And if it’s routine, then for what do we have to apologize?

Editor’s note: The IDF has actually apologized a few times. For instance, the army officially apologized for jailing one of its own soldiers for eating an un-kosher sandwich this year. In the late 1980s the army also apologized, “sincerely” this time, for killing two Norweigan soldiers. In 2002 the army apologized for shelling a statue of the Virgin Mary at a church in Bethlehem. In 2011 Defense Minister Ehud Barak officially apologized to Egypt for killing two of its soldiers after Cairo rejected the Israeli army’s expression of “regret” as insufficient. In 2015, the army apologized for startling Jewish settlers by landing an attack helicopter in a West Bank settlement without giving them a heads-up. What do the recipients of these apologies have in common? None of them are Palestinian.

*Then-president Shimon Peres apologized for the deaths of the four Palestinian children on the beach in Gaza but the IDF, the party responsible for carrying out the air strike and then investigating its own actions, did no such thing.

Noam Rotem is an Israeli activist, high-tech executive and author of the blog o139.org, subtitled “Godwin doesn’t live here any more.” This article was first published in Hebrew on Local Call, where he is also a blogger.

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