For the past few days, Israeli media and social networks have been abuzz with a bizarre story that is laying waste to stereotypes. In a strange twist, the brouhaha has the far left defending a soldier who allegedly beat a Palestinian to a bloody pulp, while the center and right appear to support the State Attorney’s claim that the story is fabricated.
The soldier – now a civilian – is Dean Issacharof, the spokesperson for Breaking the Silence (BtS). BtS seeks to end Israel’s presence in the West Bank by exposing mostly anonymous testimonies by IDF soldiers about what they claim were improper military activities they were forced to perform in the Palestinian Territories. The group, which receives most of its funding from abroad, is often in the news for supposedly delivering the real scoop on Israel’s occupation.
In this capacity, Issacharof stood on a public stage last June and claimed to have beaten and dragged a Palestinian until he bled and fainted.
The IDF’s rules of arrest do not permit excessive force, nor do its Ethical Code’s Purity of Arms conduct expectations, which clearly state that every soldier “shall make use of his weaponry and power only for the fulfillment of the mission and solely to the extent required” and “shall not employ his weaponry and power in order to harm non-combatants or prisoners of war, and shall do all he can to avoid harming their lives, body, honor and property.”
Issacharof’s claim meant he had violated those standards, so following his public confession, the police, at the request of the Military Attorney General, opened an investigation. The investigation included an interview with the Palestinian who Issacharof claimed to have beaten, Hasan Julani.
Much to everyone’s surprise, Julani testified that he wasn’t beaten or bruised, didn’t bleed and never fainted.
The case was subsequently closed last week. The State Attorney’s office concluded that “the events [Issacharof] described did not occur” and pointedly added that Issacharof had “bolstered his claim” by exaggerating.
What followed was a swift escalation on both sides. Within hours, Netanyahu tweeted that BtS are a bunch of liars, followed closely by Ayelet Shaked, the Justice Minister who had encouraged the State’s Attorney to investigate. She called BtS claims against the IDF defamatory.
Next, Issacharof’s unit-mates publicly called him a liar, and his commander insisted he had always directed his charges to treat Palestinians respectfully (with “derech eretz”).
BtS responded swiftly, criticizing the supposed politicization of the State Attorney. They called the investigation a “show investigation,” and claimed the beaten Palestinian was coerced into lying. In a subsequent salvo, BtS changed the claim and declared that the wrong Palestinian had been interrogated, and the State Attorney had intentionally thrown the case. BtS also published a video of the Company Commander’s signal operator that could be interpreted as support for Issacharof’s story but does not negate the State’s Attorney’s version.
And then yet another video was released by another left wing organization, B’Tzelem, together with BtS, purportedly showing Issachrof’s unit after the arrest and claiming to reveal the actual Palestinian Issacharof had beaten. The problem is that the alleged victim is alert, not dragged or bloody.
The debate hit its peak when Issacharof videotaped a proclamation of guilt and dramatically declared, “these hands have landed beatings on Palestinians in the territories.”
For beating a Palestinian to a pulp, Issacharof is now getting the support of a hero — from the left. That is the crux of this battle. BtS so desperately wants to convince the public that sending soldiers to Palestinian areas leads to untenable, illegal activities that they are willing to back a violent criminal, while the Israeli government is exonerating him.
Thus we arrive at the paradoxical situation in which Israel’s hard left is standing behind a man who claims to have brutally beaten a Palestinian, a man who is either a criminal or a liar, while Israel’s institutions are busy exculpating the same man of a crime they say was never committed.
The irony runs deep. Many on the left, who dogmatically attack the State Attorney and reject the argument that the investigation was properly conducted (a claim they will surely regret if Netanyahu is indicted), support Issacharof – a man who now claims to have broken IDF rules and beaten a Palestinian man bloody. These are not settlers who are supporting a man who took a Palestinian’s life in his hands, but “peace-loving” leftists from Israel’s key leftist and “human rights” organizations. Sure, they say, he committed brutal violence against people we want to help, but it’s not him, it’s the Occupation.
But far from unusual, this topsy turvy situation was there in potentia all along. It is part of a pattern that should concern reasonable people who believe Israel’s left and watchdog groups play an important role because they seek to shed a light on potentially improper or illegal IDF actions and activities.
For in their zeal to demonize Israeli society, particularly its security and judicial activities involving Palestinians within and outside the Green Line, these groups are willing to exonerate individuals like Issacharof who commit unacceptable acts.
Issacharof is not the only example of this. Too often, liberal groups excuse extremely problematic behavior to further their goals. Another example happened three years ago, when it emerged that a senior B’Tzelem researcher, Atef abu-Alrub, was also a Holocaust denier. At first B’Tzelem forcefully denied the accusation. But ultimately they gave in when a video emerged in which abu-Alrub tells reporter Tovia Tenenbom that the Germans did not murder Jews during World War II.
B’Tzelem eventually did fire abu-Alrub. But the organization never withdrew the years of research he had conducted for them, nor did it edit the reports on which he had worked. Abu-Alrub was one of B’Tzelem’s most experienced field researchers, but he was documented blaming Israel for things like turning Jordan’s hills from green to brown and barren.
The importance of B’Tzelem’s research cannot be understated. Their work is respected enough to have been used in the Goldstone Report and at the UN Security Council, weeks before the egregious 2334 resolution was passed. By keeping abu-Alrub’s contributions to their research intact, B’Tzelem demonstrated that the work of a Holocaust denier was copacetic with their goals.
B’Tzelem assiduously defended abu-Alrub until it became embarrassing. And while they continue using his work, two years later, they announced they would no longer cooperate with Israel’s police and the IDF’s investigative arm on “abuse” claims, rejecting the work of both, and the ability of Israel’s institutions to use the law to follow up on these abuses.
Now B’Tzelem has joined others on Israel’s far left in fervently supporting someone who acknowledged beating Palestinians – contravening IDF regulations – while vilifying Israel’s legal system, although there is no evidence this investigation was gamed or politically influenced. All the State Attorney did was exonerate Issacharof.
When activists head to extremes because solutions to this conflict are elusive, they may lose sight of the moral stakes. Supporting the egregious is unsupportable, and claiming the higher ground is no salve. Ultimately, these actions undermine goals involving peace and justice because they weaken proponents’ credibility and legitimacy.
Daniel Kohn lives and writes in San Diego and tweets @danielkohn99