Heroism or manslaughter

One of the main news stories in Israel at the moment is the case of the soldier who shot a terrorist after he was already down, “neutralized” in the jargon, while he was lying on the ground bleeding.  However, he was still alive as indicated by his movement in a video shot by someone who happened to be there and who then released it over the internet.  This caused a furore in the media, of course many thousands of people concluded that the soldier had cold-bloodedly killed the terrorist.  It is important to remember, however, that this was no innocent bystander, this was indeed a terrorist who attacked IDF soldiers with a companion and who had been shot while trying to kill them.

In the video it is clear that the terrorist is still alive and had moved his head.  What was not noted before is that another soldier comes up to the one who did the shooting and says something to him.  It might have been that he said “the bastard is still alive and dangerous, shoot him.”  We don’t know what he said, that is speculation, but immediately after this soldier said something to him the soldier in question then shot the terrorist.   The soldier’s commander also stated that he suspected that the terrorist might be wearing a suicide vest and might be conscious enough to blow himself up and kill the surrounding soldiers.

It is also important to point out that many people are motivated not only by hatred of Israel, but by humanitarian reasons.  In their minds it is not moral to shoot and kill someone who has already been neutralized and indeed this is against the IDF rules of conduct.  In the past soldiers have been tried and punished for exceeding their duty by killing someone who is already in custody or has been neutralized.  A well-known example was the case of an Arab teen who hijacked a bus some years ago and shot several Israeli civilians and then  gave himself up.  He was photographed being led away by a high officer, and then moments later he was shot dead.  This officer was arrested and tried for murder and was was sentenced to prison for this act.

An IDF investigation has apparently confirmed that the terrorist in this case was not dead when he was shot by the soldier.  However, before one jumps to the conclusion that this is a cut and dried case, consider this.  The rules of military engagement that apply to armed forces according to the Geneva conventions that have been adopted by most civilized countries do NOT apply to terrorists.  They apply only to members of clearly designated armies or militias that wear a uniform and identifying insignias.   The international community has had trouble defining what a terrorist is, because many countries regard all Israelis as terrorists and those that kill them as martyrs and heroes.  So in the absence of an agreed legal definition, it is in fact permissible for a soldier to kill a terrorist.

Note also that it is impermissible for soldiers to kill civilians unless he or others are in direct danger as a result of not doing so.  For example, the shooting of young black men by police in the US is not the same, unless they have reason to believe that their or other’s lives were in danger.  This happened in Gaza for example when Hamas terrorists fired rockets at Israeli civilian targets from populated areas and next to hospitals, mosques and hotels.  The response comes very quickly and the terrorists are usually killed, but sometimes because of the deliberate location of the launching others are also killed, so-called collateral damage.  But, note that this is considered permissible under international law.  Nevertheless, Hamas and other terrorist organizations deliberately do this, use human shields for example, for the PR value of the subsequent civilian deaths.

The soldier in this case has been accused of manslaughter and we are waiting to see if the case will actually go to court.  Under the circumstances of military action there is a fine line between doing the right thing and being charged for manslaughter.

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