Eisner and the Activists: What Really Happened on Saturday at Route 90?

Within a week it had almost 600,000 hits. The video, released on YouTube a week ago, showed IDF soldier Shlomo Eisner striking a young distracted Danish man in the face with the long side of his M16 on Saturday afternoon (April 14, 2012).

After a flurry of articles including two New York Times articles (April 17, April 18), it looked like the story would die down. But on Friday B’Tselem released a new video filmed by Palestinian TV. The video shows Eisner hitting an additional 4 people, one in the back with his gun. Another person struck by Eisner was standing still in front of Eisner. In order to strike her Eisner had to take at least one pace forward and lunge.

Eisner had claimed that he was acting in self defense after having already been attacked. He said the first video had been heavily edited. It presented a distorted picture of what happened. The so-called cyclists were anarchists. For Eisner to have acted in any other way would have put lives at risk.

One Video, Two Stories

The video that started the uproar showed only one person being attacked. However, eye witness reports said that a total of seven cyclists were injured, three of which refused medical care. The four taken to hospital had wounds on their backs or faces. One of those was Andreas Ias, the young Danish man. All of the injured were part of a group of 250 cyclists touring the Jordan valley in support of Palestinians. The cyclists had been riding for about 20 minutes when they came upon an IDF road block. The mission of police officers in that location was to prevent traffic disruptions, so the officers might have been concerned about the effect of a large group of cyclists on the highway. According to one IDF soldier who was present at the conflict, the cyclists sang peacefully for about 90 minutes and then tried to forcibly break through a military blockade that was preventing them from completing their tour.

But other soldiers claimed that the cyclists hit soldiers with sticks and threw a bicycle at Eisner. Eisner explained he attacked Andreas Ias because he believed he was the one who had hit him. Eisner told Channel 10 that he was defending Israel from people that would endanger lives and that the video misrepresented a two hour long confrontation.

We know the history of these anarchists, they came with sticks and broke my hand – but no one will tell or film that. There is a question here of what is more important – to carry out the mission or to look good (in pictures). I claim the mission is important enough…What if they would film IDF soldiers backing down from an angry crowd? That sounds good? What, I’d let them block roads? I’d let them endanger lives?

A close friend of Eisner, Lieutenant Colonel Arik Ben Shimon, told Arutz Sheva that the video was edited

You have to understand that this was a confrontation that lasted over two hours and not an event that lasted a few minutes … This was the last line of defense before an area that was declared a ‘closed military zone’ and the video is obviously edited in a biased way, leaving out the part where that anarchist from Denmark hit Eisner with a stick on his right hand and caused fractures of his hand.

Ias says he did not hit Eisner and that the accusation is “a complete lie”. Bakr Abdul-Haq, the Palestinian who made the first video, agreed with Ias. He said that Ias was standing in front of Eisner and that Eisner approached Ias before hitting him. He told the press, “I am prepared to give all the video material to anyone who will investigate the incident and bring the truth to light,”

A Second Video Tips the Balance to Ias

On Friday B’tzelem released a much longer video taken by Palestinian TV. This video 8 minutes of the confrontation rather than two. It shows Eisner attacking at least five people, two before he strikes Ias, Andreas Ias, and two afterwards. Eisner goes out of his way to strike one of the cyclists just before he hits Ias. Just after he hits Ias, Eisner swings around and hits a person from behind.

The B’tzelem video shows no evidence of violence on the part of the cyclists. If the video was heavily edited to exclude violence then the violence would have had to happen after the unprovoked attacks and not before. Heavy editing during the attacks seems unlikely as we have now two videos from different sources and viewing angles with approximately the same timing for the five attacks.

The opening of the video supports the cyclist claims that they were the one’s blocked by the IDF over the claim that they had created a roadblock. In the first frames of the B’tzelem video, the cyclists ride up to the soldiers and the soldiers stop them. The bikers stay in place and for a line in front of the soldiers. Off to the side there is a girl in a white shirt standing still in the front row of bikers.

The more restrained behavior of other soldiers only serves to highlight Eisner’s aggression. One tries to ride forward. A soldier, not Eisner, stops the biker, takes his bike and he backs off into the crowd of bikes and people. The soldier carefully rolls the bike to the army van and leans it on the side. A portion of this scene is also captured in the video released last week.

Eisner’s behavior was quite different. He appears to have responded to the bike rolling forward as if it were an attack signal and to ignre the actual behavior of the people in front of him. Although the girl in white continues to stand still, Eisner steps forward at least one pace towards her, then throws his body forward at least another half a pace and hits her in the face with the rifle so hard she falls backwards. This attack was not visible on last weeks video because the camera was focused on the soldier rolling away the bike.

After hitting the girl, Eisner pauses. A young man steps forward to the front of the line. This is Andreas Ias. In the first video which shows a close up of this moment he is looking distractedly around when Eisner hits him with the broadside of the rifle so hard that he falls and has to be carried back. Seconds later, the new video shows Eisner swings around and hits a second cyclist trying to roll his bike forward in the back of the head. This second strike is missed in the first video because the camera is focused on the people trying to help Andreas.

A few frames later one of the bikers walks forward to either help or find out more about a friend who is being held down and cuffed. Eisner pulls her hair spinning her around and pushing her into a nearby ambulance. She backs off but we hear her screaming “Stop hitting him”, perhaps refering to the friend who was being cuffed.

Then Eisner swings around, sees a biker walk forward from the other side of the ambulence, and smacks him with the butt of his gun. In each case it looks like Eisner attacked with violence when the person was doing nothing more aggressive than standing still or walking forward.

What is perhaps saddest of all is that Eisner’s quick moves look like those of an expert fighter in a gang fight, but there was no gang fight around him. It is clear that Eisner was trying to protect his men, but it is not clear that he was reading the situation and their need for protection with clear eyes.

There are No Winners Here

In emergency situations people have to act on gut instinct for their own safety. However, when the gap between the situation and the person’s reading of the situation is too large, everyone is in danger. People, in this case young people, are hurt without reason. Israel’s reputation suffers as well because conflicts like these make for perfect anti-Israel propaganda. Precipitous and unnecessary violence can also inflame a tense but previously peaceful situation.

Pundits have been saying for a long time that Israel has to take the moral high ground when incidents like these occur. Rather than deny responsibility or justify our actions, we have to show that we police our own with firmness. The quick condemnations and investigation is perhaps an example, for once, of effective damage control.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu condemned the attack saying “Such behavior does not characterize IDF soldiers and officers and has no place in the Israel Defense Forces and in the State of Israel,”. Israeli President ShimonPerez called it shocking.

IDF chief of staff, Benny Gantz, announced on Monday that Eisner had been suspended and that an investigation had been started. He told the press, “The incident does not reflect the values of the IDF. It will be investigated thoroughly and will be dealt with sternly,”

With unusual speed, two days later, he was removed from his command and barred from serving in senior command posts for two years. He had been expecting a promotion to serve as deputy commander of the IDF Officer School later this year.

The official IDF statement read: “It has been determined by the Chief of the General Staff, Lieutenant General Benjamin (Benny) Gantz, to dismiss Lieutenant Colonel Shalom Eisner from his post as Deputy Division Commander on moral grounds,”. He was also charged with errors of professional judgement, most particularly for his failure to use crowd control techniques rather than violence to deal with the activists. Eisner will remain in the IDF and serve instead in a senior staff position.

Eisner and Israel were lucky that the group before him was a mix of young college students and middle aged adults including an older woman.  Some of the participants including Ias were indeed members of  the International Solidarity Movement .   However, that probably helped prevent violence on the side of the activists.  Although this group has certainly caused problems for Israel, they come mainly because of the extreme nature of its non-violence rather than its aggression.     It lauds passive resistance to the point of risking one’s life.   One of the more famous examples is Rachel Corrie who was killed because she refused to move from in front of a bulldozer.

Had this really been a group of Palestinian anarchists with a violent agenda, this situation could easily have turned into a serious danger, even for the soldiers. Further the bad press would have been much harder to quelch by taking the moral high ground. Instead of clear cut condemnations and a quick removal from command, Israel would have been forced into a lengthy investigation and complex arguments about Israel’s right to defend herself.

Andreas Ias and the six others will not be so lucky. For them, the shock of being subjected to violence out of proportion to their behavior is something that will likely live on long after the publicity around this story has died down.
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Categories: Building a Just Israel, How Others See Us | Tags: , , | Leave a comment

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