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.
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.