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Deadly force in deadly times
The video that went viral in Israel on Monday left little room for debate. Three Special Patrol Unit police officers are standing outside Damascus Gate in Jerusalem, when one of them asks a young man for his ID and all hell breaks loose. The man, later named as Muhammad Ali, 19, from Shuafat, takes a knife and stabs the neck of one of the police officers and then jumps and stabs a second one, before he is taken down in a hail of gunfire and surrounded by at least nine officers training their guns on him.
The clip went public just a few days after footage of the shooting of a Palestinian woman in a separate attack in Afula began to make the rounds. In the previous clip, 30-year-old Nazareth resident Asra Zidan Abd can be seen holding a knife and a handbag, as several police officers surround her and point their guns at her. She continues to stand still, and within seconds several gunshots ring out and she hits the ground, badly wounded in the lower body and taken to hospital for treatment.
Though she was only wounded, she was not approaching the officers at the time of her shooting, which was quickly seized upon as an “execution” in the Arab sector and elsewhere.
The recent wave of stabbing attacks isn’t entirely new – there was a series of “ramming attacks” and stabbings last year – but this time they are much more frequent and many more of the attacks and their aftermath are filmed and go viral in Israel, with Israelis cheering their security forces and Palestinians mourning “the martyrdom of a shahid killed by Zionists.”
Even in the most clear-cut cases, the shootings will be criticized – especially by those who feel the terrorist attacks are justified; by fringe types who claim that the attacks aren’t even taking place; by those who claim that it’s open season on Palestinians who are being gunned down for no reason; and by those who call the stabbings Israeli “false-flag” operations. This is obviously discounted by the figures – which by midday Tuesday had 11 Palestinian attackers killed and 18 apprehended (most also wounded) in 27 attacks since October 1, though even statistics can be subjective in the Middle East.
So far, even with all of the footage floating around, there doesn’t appear to be a clear-cut case where a police officer could be charged with the wrongful death of an attacker. As much as the police are on high alert, over-stressed, and also, to some extent afraid like the rest of us, there hasn’t been a “Bus 300”-style incident. (In 1984, four armed Arabs hijacked a bus. Two died fighting when the bus was stormed to free the captives, but the other two were killed after they were cuffed and apprehended.) According to police rules of engagement, shooting is permitted “in order to stop an attack that presents a clear and present danger to the life of the officer or others.” The danger must still be ongoing and shooting must be a last resort.
In property crimes, shooting is not permitted.
In regard to Afula – in which the attacker was wounded but not killed – the female attacker had already shown intent to cause bodily harm with a deadly weapon, and was refusing to disarm. A person with a knife can pose a deadly threat even if their target has a firearm, though obviously much less so if the gun is already drawn and pointed at the attacker.
Still, her actions up until the moment she was shot should be enough to stave off any Justice Ministry investigation of the police and the prospect that anyone will face charges.
It’s also unlikely that charges will be opened for the shooting of Fadi Samir Alloun, a 19-year-old who, according to the police, had just stabbed a teen in Jerusalem before he was shot late on the night of October 3 in east Jerusalem. In videos of the incident, he appears to be walking away from Jews who are shouting “terrorist” and “shoot him,” before he is shot by police. In the video, he seems to advance towards the police before he is shot, but it is hard to see, and hard to make out a weapon.
Regardless, just because a shooting falls within the boundaries of the law doesn’t mean it’s not questionable or the wrong thing to do. The Afula shooting, for instance, has been widely criticized – by Arabs and Jews alike – including by former Shin Bet (Israel Security Agency) director Yuval Diskin, who in a Facebook post on Monday wrote “after watching the video over and over, I feel that she could have been arrested without a serious risk and without shooting.”
In that same post, however, he said “a terrorist who is carrying a firearm or other weapon and poses a threat (they have the means and the intent to pose an immediate threat to their surroundings) must be killed as quickly as possible. I would like to see the court in Israel that will jail a security officer or citizen who operates according to these rules.”
At the end of the day, the courts and the court of public opinion – among Jews at least – are going to side with those who use deadly force in instances where the attacker is still armed and could still pose a threat. The longer this wave of attacks continues, the greater the possibility that we will see a clear case of someone wrongfully killed or even murdered – especially with more and more licensed civilians deciding to carry firearms at all times, and with the public on edge and afraid to an extent they haven’t been in years.
In the meantime, we have more and more videos emerging that are open to interpretation. Even the seemingly unambiguous attack carried out at the Damascus Gate on Saturday has its doubters who say it “looks like a set-up.”
Police seem to be concerned about the trend, because on Monday they put out a press release to every media outlet just after the Damascus Gate video was published, saying that the faces of the police must be blocked out for security reasons.
They said the officers would return to these same areas on patrol and must remain anonymous for their own safety.
Though arguably, as uniformed officers in east Jerusalem, they are targets regardless.
This is much different from the situation a little over a decade ago. During the second intifada, police officers who stopped attacks were on a number of occasions presented to the press by the police spokesperson’s branch and interviewed with their names and faces unobscured. The stories were good for morale, good for the image of the police, and the interviews were a way for cops to get public recognition for acts of bravery under fire.
In today’s age of smartphones and CCTV cameras on every corner, police seem keenly aware that they can no longer control the narrative of every arrest of an attacker, and also of the fact that with footage floating around, their officers could potentially be targeted by Palestinian extremists, or even face potential legal problems abroad.
In the meantime, we’ve had a series of videos emerge, including some that are truly difficult to watch – in particular the clip of a 13-year-old attacker in east Jerusalem left to bleed on the street as ambulances are en route, as some Israelis curse him and wish him dead. Of course there were also the Afula residents who held an attacker until police arrived, protecting him from a mob. Both represent the Israeli public in these strange days – terrified, on edge, and not sitting idly by, while trying and not always succeeding, to stay human and act rational in irrational times.