Why IDF soldiers stand idly by when settlers attack Palestinians

By Dana Golan

Last Saturday, a B’Tselem video camera captured an incident of settler violence that began with rocks being thrown at Palestinians near the village of Asira al-Qibliya in the outskirts of Nablus, and ended with live shots fired by the settlers and a wounded Palestinian youth.

Anyone who saw the video could easily make out the IDF soldiers standing next to the settlers, doing nothing to stop them. Those watching from the sidelines may have been surprised by the useless stance of the soldiers. But anyone who understands the reality in the Occupied Territories well knows that that this is just another example of the long-entrenched paradigm that constitutes the basis of IDF activity on the ground: We are not here to protect Palestinians. Not when the settlers burn their olive trees or throw rocks at them. And not even when settlers shoot at them.

The most extreme outcome of this paradigm was the massacre at the Tomb of the Patriarchs in 1994. When Baruch Goldstein, a settler from Kiryat Arba, entered the Tomb, there were no cameras to record the incident and no soldiers (or Border Police officers) to stand in opposition. But even if they had been there, it’s reasonable to assume that they wouldn’t have been the ones to stop the firing. The reason for this, as published in the report by the Shamgar Committee charged with investigating the incident, is that the rules of engagement given to Border Police officers serving there at the time forbade them from directing any fire of any kind at a Jewish settler. In testimony given by one of the officers to the Committee, the explicit command was described: “Arms may not be used against any Jewish settler in Hebron, along with any crowd dispersal method, even if said settler is endangering my own life or the life of an Arab near him.” Another commander from a Border Police company in Hebron testified that the rules regarding disturbance of the peace by a Jew were, “to take shelter so as not to be injured, to wait until his weapon jams or the magazine runs out, and to then try to overpower him through other means.” Baruch Goldstein was stopped when his weapon jammed; the result was 29 Palestinians killed and dozens injured.

After the Shamgar Committee investigation, the rules of engagement changed. The command to wait for a weapons jam was replaced with the direction to “instruct the shooter or person endangering life through other means to cease his actions, or to try to overpower him immediately, while using reasonable force.” In the case that the shooter is not deterred by the soldiers’ requests to cease fire, they are required, according to the IDF instructions, to carry out something similar to the “procedure for detaining a suspect”: shots in the air, shots towards the legs, and only then, shots to neutralize the danger.

This is how it is on paper. In reality, the soldier on the ground receives oral commands that preserve the order to do nothing in instances of Israeli fire towards Palestinians, and in instances of less severe violence, “to serve as a buffer.” Soldiers on the ground are well-trained to take action when a Palestinian attacks, but not when he is the victim of settler violence. Most of the testimonies given to Breaking the Silence don’t relate to the commands given in the instance of an Israeli shooting at a Palestinian because the perception is that the IDF is in the Occupied Territories in order to protect the settlers, and this is the basis for all routine IDF activity. You don’t shoot at the ones you were sent to protect.

Perhaps its because I served in Hebron, or perhaps because I’ve been exposed to many soldier testimonies that describe incidents of settler violence towards Palestinians – but I cannot understand the Israeli public’s amazement surrounding the video from Saturday. After nearly 45 years of occupation, even those Israelis who never served in the Territories should already know that this is what life looks like in the “backyard” of our own State. This is the reality created by constant discrimination and the enforcement of two separate law regimes. The soldiers who just stood there should not be the targets of disgust for their unfit behavior. It is us, the civilians at home, who continue to send them there to enforce this discriminatory occupation, who should be looking in the mirror and asking ourselves how we let this reality develop and continue.

First Lieutenant (Res.) Dana Golan is the Executive Director of Breaking the Silence. She served in the Border Police in Hebron in 2001.