JERUSALEM – A senior Israeli military officer's seemingly unprovoked assault against an unarmed pro-Palestinian activist drew sharp condemnations Monday, raising questions in Israel over whether the country's heavy-handed approach to nonviolent protesters was exaggerated and causing damage to Israel's image.
The assault, captured on video and featured in all major newspapers and TV broadcasts, follows Israel's high-profile interception at its main airport of dozens of international activists who had planned a solidarity mission with Palestinians in the West Bank. Adding to the sense that Israel may have gone too far, officials said Tuesday that nearly 500 people were erroneously blocked from visiting.
Israel has branded the activists "provocateurs" who posed a security threat to the country. Calling itself the Middle East's only democracy, it says the protesters have their priorities wrong and should instead focus on rampant human rights violations in neighboring Arab countries.
Israel feels it is unfairly singled out internationally and is obsessed about its international image. Leaders often complain about what they say are unfair efforts to "delegitimize" the country with boycotts, divestment calls and other campaigns. The country even has a ministry of public diplomacy that aims to promote the country's image overseas.
But critics say that Israel's policies, not its public relations efforts, are the problem, particularly when it comes to its actions in the occupied West Bank. Saturday's beating of the foreign activist, filmed by another demonstrator as soldiers blocked them from riding bicycles near the West Bank town of Jericho, gave new ammunition to its detractors.
"Any reasonable viewer who sees the clip asks himself how many such incidents take place where there is no documentation, and how the army responds when there is no conclusive and public proof of unjustified violence," wrote Ofer Shelah, a military columnist for the Yediot Ahronot daily.
In the video, Lt. Col. Shalom Eisner is seen smashing a Danish activist in the face with his M-16 rifle. Israel said the group of about 200 activists was attempting to block a main highway and had provoked the soldiers.
The officer, through his confidantes, claimed the activist had previously struck him with a stick, breaking two of his fingers, Israeli media reported. One newspaper ran a photo of him with a bandage on his hand.
The activist, a 20-year-old man from Denmark, said the event was "completely nonviolent." In an interview with The Associated Press, he said he required stitches to his lip from the blow. He refused to be identified, fearing retribution from Israeli authorities.
In Denmark, Foreign Minister Villy Soevndal said the Danish ambassador to Israel had asked authorities for a report on what had happened.
"The Israeli prime minister's comments have been very critical of the incident. I agree with him. We must all condemn the use of force, which apparently has been used against the demonstrators," he said.
The video appeared on all major evening newscasts Sunday and Monday, and the officer was immediately suspended while the incident was investigated.
The military chief, President Shimon Peres and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu all condemned the officer's behavior. "Such conduct is not characteristic of the soldiers and commanders of the Israeli military, and has no place in the army or the state of Israel," Netanyahu said.
While stressing that the incident was isolated, Israeli officials acknowledged that the assault caused huge damage to Israel, which repeatedly claims its military to be the most moral in the world.
Israel has a long history of troubled relations with international activists. Several pro-Palestinian activists have been killed or maimed in clashes with the Israeli forces over the years.
In the worst instance, Israeli naval commandos clashed with activists on board a flotilla trying to break Israel's blockade of the Gaza Strip in May 2010, killing nine activists.
Over the weekend, Israel prevented hundreds of pro-Palestinian activists from entering the country to participate in a solidarity mission drawing attention to Israeli travel restrictions on Palestinians in the West Bank. Some were detained upon arrival at the airport, while others were prevented from boarding flights in their home countries.
While Israel declared victory, some commentators have questioned whether the action simply drew attention to the policies targeted by the protesters.
In another sign that the crackdown might have backfired, the Foreign Ministry said that about 470 of the 1,200 people who were barred from the country should not have been on the list. "We don't know why they were there," said spokesman Yigal Palmor.
Yuli Edelstein, Israel's minister for public diplomacy, rejected the notion that Israel was overreacting with the foreign activists and thus damaging its own image. He said the incident with Eisner highlighted the danger of letting activists roam freely.
"The moment these people are out of control, running around and creating trouble, their dream is to be hit by an officer and get it on camera. It shows that ignoring is not exactly a very good policy," he said.
But critics said the government's overzealous response was doing more harm than good.
Maariv columnist Shai Golden said Israel would be better off ignoring the "band of pampered eccentrics" instead of treating them like terrorists.
"Israel would have dismissed the matter with a shrug, the group of penny-ante anarchists would have turned around and left and our peace of mind would not have been disturbed," he said.