Israel’s military chief on Wednesday issued a rare memo to soldiers, urging them to use their weapons responsibly in the wake of the deadly shooting of a Palestinian attacker as he already lay wounded on the ground.
The shooting has set off a national uproar and divided the country over whether the soldier who shot the Palestinian acted properly and whether the army abandoned him by detaining him and launching an investigation. The Palestinians say the shooting was an extrajudicial killing.
In his letter, Lt. Gen. Gadi Eizenkot said “we must act in a professional manner while using pinpointed force, measured and reasonable, in order to perform our mission and to be true to our values.”
“The commanders, with me at the helm, will continue to support every soldier who errs during the heat of the battle against an enemy that endangers the lives of civilians and soldiers,” he added. “With that, we will not hesitate to exercise the law with soldiers and commanders who deviate from the operational and ethical criteria according to which we operate.”
The shooting of Abdel-Fattah al-Sharif came amid six months of near-daily Palestinian attacks. Many argue the young soldier fired because he suspected al-Sharif, who had stabbed a soldier before being shot and wounded, may have been reaching for an explosive device. On Tuesday, hundreds of people, including a former foreign minister, demonstrated outside a military court as it extended his detention.
Others say al-Sharif, who was lying on the ground, was no longer a threat, and that the shooting breached army norms and damaged its image. The army has said the shooting appeared to be a “grave breach” of its values, drawing angry condemnations from Israeli hard-liners who accuse it of abandoning a soldier.
Palestinian stabbings, shootings and car-ramming attacks have killed 28 Israelis and two Americans since September. Over the same time, at least 188 Palestinians have died by Israeli fire. Israel says most were attackers, and the rest died in clashes with Israeli security forces.
Israel blames the attacks on incitement by Palestinian leaders amplified on social media. Palestinians say the violence, often carried out by teenagers in apparent suicide missions, is rooted in frustration at nearly five decades of Israeli military occupation.
The Palestinians have also accused Israel of using excessive force and killing assailants who have already been stopped or wounded. Several amateur videos that appear to support the Palestinian claims have emerged in recent months.
Earlier this week, U.S. Sen. Patrick Leahy, a Vermont Democrat, asked Secretary of State John Kerry to look into possible extrajudicial killings by Israeli forces. His letter was signed by 10 congressmen.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu angrily responded to Leahy’s letter on Wednesday, saying Israeli forces “do not engage in executions.”
“Israel’s soldiers and police officers defend themselves and innocent civilians with the highest moral standards against bloodthirsty terrorists who come to murder them,” he said.
In Geneva, meanwhile, the U.N. special rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions, Christof Heyns, said the shooting of al-Sharif carried “all the signs of a clear case of an extrajudicial execution.”
Heyns is an independent investigator appointed by the U.N. Human Rights Council. Israel accuses the U.N. body of systematic bias against the Jewish state.