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Are left-wing activists safe from Israeli security force violence? – analysis

CM 19/09/2021

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What was startling about the attack by IDF soldiers against left-wing activists in the South Hebron Hills on Friday, was not the act itself, but the fact that was so little reaction on the part of top Israeli politicians. 
An IDF commander was caught on camera pushing an Israeli activist in his 60s from behind his back with such force that the man literally flew in the air, landed rolled on the ground and bruised his face so badly, that he then needed surgery.
A second video from the same event showed a protestor, a former lieutenant-colonel in the reserves, lying on the ground with an IDF officer kneeing him in the face and pushing him down in a chokehold.

A few left-wing parliamentarians complained. Some right-wing politicians rushed to defend the IDF against “extremist anarchists.” An animated debate broke out on Twitter, but the silence at the top was defending. 
It was as if such a show of force in response to a civil disobedience event was so normative for security forces, that comment by Israeli leaders was unnecessary.

 Activists from the left-wing organizations Combatants for Peace, All That's Left and the Jordan Valley Coalition in the South Hebron Hills (credit: COMBATANTS FOR PEACE) Activists from the left-wing organizations Combatants for Peace, All That’s Left and the Jordan Valley Coalition in the South Hebron Hills (credit: COMBATANTS FOR PEACE)

Prime Minister Naftali Bennett, Defense Minister Benny Gantz, issued no statement on the matter. The IDF took only two days to investigate, issuing a mere reprimand to the officer without ever contacting the NGO group Combatants for Peace that held the rally to see what information it might provide.
Just to backtrack, in 2012 a fairly similar incident occurred in the Jordan Valley, when a deputy brigade commander hit foreign activists with the butt of his rile when they tried to push past him during a protest march that involved a bike ride.
Gantz, who at the time was chief of staff, demoted the officer, suspended him without pay for two months with IDF stating that he would be forced to retire early.
Eight years later, with Gantz as defense minister, the offending officer from Friday’s event was given only a slap on the wrist.
To be clear, neither incidents were the type of protests that involved stone-throwing, violent physical attacks,  Molotov cocktails and burning tires. 
With regard to Friday’s South Hebron Hills protest, there are conflicting narratives, with the IDF claiming that the activists resorted to violence and Combatants for Peace arguing that they didn’t.
But both groups would agree that protestors did not bring stones, Molotov cocktails, burning tires or guns on the scene; in short, no one was in mortal peril. Any violence surrounding the event would have been limited to physical and verbal attacks. 
That this was correct is obvious by looking at the soldiers themselves, who in photos of the event did not appear to have riot shields needed for protection. 
It’s the kind of gear soldiers would bring with them if the level of danger was expected to be higher. During the evacuation of the Amona outpost in 2006, for example, security forces wore such gear when confronting right-wing activists because they feared stones and burning tires might be thrown at them.
Here many of the soldiers didn’t even wear helmets, although they had tear gas canisters and stun grenades with them, and they used them. But should they have done so?
The IDF has already answered “no” to that question.
It’s certainly not the first time, however, that the IDF has lobbed tear gas at protestors to disperse them.
MK Mossi Raz (Meretz) might have tweeted that it was the worst incident of IDF violence against left-wing activists he had witnessed in 40 years. But Israelis, Palestinians and foreigners who have participated in West Bank protests would all have witnessed or experienced such moments when the IDF over responded. 
If evidence of the violence was more readily available, then such reports would become more commonplace
Activists on both the Left and the Right have long complained about such gratuitous violence against them from the IDF. 
After 53 years in the West Bank, one could argue that the IDF should be as trained to handle an unarmed protest as they would an armed one. But there is something to the fact that at the end of the day, the IDF is better equipped for war than an unarmed protest.
The IDF subtly acknowledged this when it said on Sunday that from here on in, it would work with the police, who would handle such events.
Within sovereign Israel, however, the police have not necessarily had a lighter hand when dealing with protestors. Look at east Jerusalem rallies or the protests near Balfour Street against former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
The reports of excessive police violence by Netanyahu’s former residence, including with the use of water cannons, sparked intense debates about where the right of protest ended and the rights of the police to take action began.
That better civic training for control in such events is necessary for both police and the IDF is obvious. But one can’t ignore the impact the discourse of intolerance against civic dissent has on the tolerance for violence against protestors.
One protestor speaking on the radio said she did not understand why police near Balfour Street in Jerusalem attacked her, since she was not an “anarchist.” It was almost as if she believed that the right to protest was linked to ideology and not an equivalent right granted to all citizens in a democracy, including the right to civil disobedience.
Yamina MK Abir Kara called the left-wing activists in the South Hebron Hills “terrorist operatives” and said they should not have been surprised that the IDF arrested them rather than handing them flowers.
Such language of delegitimization serves to sanctions violence as a tool and diverts attention from the issue, particularly when coming from a member of the government. 
When dissecting the Friday protest, the Right set up a scenario of competing needs. Security forces had to shut the event down because it created traffic on the road that blocked access to the Avigayil outpost, they explained. 
They also charged that the left-wing activists also created agitation against Avigayil among Palestinians, with whom it would otherwise have peaceful relations. The Left, in turn, would argue that it is Israel’s presence in the West Bank that is the heart of the problem.
In a democratic society, both the Left and the Right should be able to exercise their beliefs in a civic fashion, with security forces protecting their rights rather than favoring one group over the other.
The same security service that is geared to handle threats from Iran and Hezbollah, should certainly be able to create order in the Hebron Hills such that Avigayil residents can exit their community and left-wing protestors can rally in support of Palestinians.
The question really is not really whether is safe for left-wing activists to protest, but rather whether it’s safe for any activist on the Left or the Right to protest. It will always be unsafe as long as their legitimacy to protest is called into question and violence against them is not denounced from the top.

Source: Jerusalem Post

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