An Israeli soldier armed with a machine gun was recently caught on camera scuffling with several Palestinian women and girls, who intervened as the man tried to detain an injured 12 year-old boy for throwing stones. The footage went viral, generating millions of views in just two days, and has since put a spotlight on two radically different — and seemingly irreconcilable — interpretations of the army's role in policing the occupied territories.
The clip begins with violent clashes between Palestinian protesters and heavily armed Israeli soldiers. The confrontation is a near-weekly occurrence in Nabi Saleh, a village near Nablus in the West Bank that is known for its activism against the occupation. At around five minutes and 11 seconds into the video, a soldier can be seen attempting to aggressively detain a boy, identified as Mohammed Tamimi, who has his arm in a plaster cast. What happens next has been seen in very different ways.
The soldier, carrying an automatic weapon, straddles Mohammed and grasps him in a chokehold. Several Palestinian women then swarm the soldier, biting, slapping, and unmasking him as they wrestle the young boy out of his grasp. Ahed Tamimi, a relative of Mohammed, was reportedly among the assailants. She previously shot to internet stardom after shaking her fist an Israeli soldier in 2012, an act for which she was presented with the "Handela Award for Courage" by Turkey's president. Her family is known for its active role in the Palestinian resistance.
Responding to the incident, Avigdor Lieberman, the leader of right-wing party Yisrael Beiteinu and Israel's former foreign minister, branded the failed arrest a result of the "feeble and stuttering" government led by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
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"We are talking about an incident which severely harms the deterrent capacity of the IDF [Israel Defense Force]," Lieberman said. "The pictures show a soldier being hit by Palestinian women and children and in the end giving up on [arresting] the stone-thrower who started the whole incident, revealing weakness and helplessness."
Israeli Culture Minister Miri Regev called for an order permitting soldiers to "open fire immediately" in such situations, and said that Israel's military could not be sent on missions with "their hands tied behind their backs."
On the other side of the issue, activists characterized the confrontation as just a microcosm of Israel's violent oppression of Palestinians, who are treated much differently than Jewish settlers.
"The video shows women trying to rescue a very young relative, barely over the age of the criminal responsibility, who is pinned down by an Israeli soldier," Sarit Michaeli, a spokeswoman for B'Tselem, an Israeli human rights NGO, told VICE News. "Technically, from the age of 12 both Israeli and Palestinian children can be arrested… but it's unheard of that an Israeli minor, a settler child throwing stones, would be arrested that way."
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Michaeli, who was present at the demonstration captured in the viral video, said one of the core issues is the inability of Palestinians to protest against the Israeli occupation. "The Friday demonstrators [in Nabi Saleh] were dispersed even before they had gotten close to the exit of the village before any stones were thrown," she said. "The reality is that any protest that is more than 10 people can be declared unlawful and often is. In this situation, when the army intervenes, a peaceful demonstration can turn into clashes very quickly, but even then the majority of protesters don't throw stones".
"Why are these people protesting? This is key when you look at Israeli narratives on this matter," Michaeli continued. "The issue of protest is not hypothetic theoretical right, or a matter of us versus them as many Israelis imagine, it's a matter of struggling for basic rights and fight for survival and against theft of their land… It's not a situation that Israeli children could even imagine growing up in."
Throwing stones — a form of protest adopted by Palestinian youths during the First Intifada — and the way Israeli forces respond is one of the most contentious day-to-day issues in the Israel-Palestine conflict.
For Palestinians, throwing easily acquired projectiles such as stones, rocks, and bottles, as well as Molotov cocktails and other homemade weapons, is seen as one the only ways to resist occupation by heavily armed Israeli soldiers. Israelis note that throwing stones can be deadly, and view the act as a form of terrorism. Throwing stones is categorized as a "security offense," meaning perpetrators are subject to military law.
In July, a senior commander in the Israeli Defense Forces killed Mohammed Kusbah, a 17-year-old Palestinian, after the teenager allegedly threw stones. The officer, Colonel Israel Shomer, claimed that he fired the fatal shot while he was in "mortal danger," but investigations by rights groups and journalists later revealed that the bullet hit Kusbah in the back, indicating he was gunned down while running away.
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A recent report by Human Rights Watch found that the Israeli Defense Forces had choked, beaten, and coerced Palestinian minors into making confessions. The rights group interviewed five children between the ages of 11 and 15 who had been detained for throwing stones, and, in some cases, other more serious offenses.
According to Addameer, a Ramallah-based NGO that advocates for Palestinian prisoners, 16 minors under age 17 are currently being held in Israeli jails under administrative detention orders, a draconian measure that permits suspects to be held indefinitely without trial.
The father of the soldier involved in the confrontation in Nabi Saleh called the incident an "unpleasant provocation," but told Israeli newspaper Haaretz that he was proud of his son's restraint. "If women would have been hurt, it would have ended in a completely different way, without a doubt," he said.
Following the attack on the soldier, the Israel Defense Forces reportedly filed a complaint with the Israeli police, and officials have said that the perpetrators are "recognized [to security services] and will be arrested soon."
Follow Harriet Salem on Twitter: @HarrietSalem