JERUSALEM – The reprimand of an Israeli soldier — who was caught on video cursing and pointing a cocked gun toward the head of a Palestinian teen — has triggered the biggest outpouring of frustration by Israeli soldiers in years about their service in the West Bank.
Thousands posted messages of support on social media for the infantry soldier after the army said he apparently violated norms of behavior during a shoving match in Hebron, where several hundred radical Israeli settlers guarded by soldiers live in daily friction with tens of thousands of Palestinians.
The protest campaign appeared largely aimed at the army's perceived failure to back the soldier, rather than any moral judgments about Israel's 47-year military occupation of the West Bank. Some critics said the video reflected daily realities there and it was hypocritical to portray the confrontation, and the soldier's behavior, as unusual.
The video, shot about a week ago, begins when one of the teens stands close to the soldier and dares him in broken Hebrew to call the Israeli police. The teen then moves even closer. The soldier says: "Listen, you better not do this again, do you understand?" He shoves the teen who says in Arabic, "Lower your hand." The soldier quickly raises and cocks his weapon a few inches from the Palestinian.
Another young Palestinian suddenly appears behind the soldier who spins around with his rifle and calls out, "Hey." The first Palestinian tries to lead the second away from the soldier, who kicks at them.
The soldier then curses and walks toward a Palestinian filming the scene. "Turn off the camera," he shouts as his weapon points half-way to the ground. "I'll put a bullet in your head." There's a break and the next scene shows the soldier walking away with the first Palestinian.
The footage was shot by Youth Against Settlements, a group of Palestinian activists, and aired last week on Israel's Channel 10 TV.
Issa Amro, the group's spokesman, said the incident took place outside Beit Hadassah, a settler enclave in the center of Hebron where the military heavily restricts Palestinian movement.
Amro, who was not present at the time, said that tensions flared before filming began. He said three Palestinians — including one who later appears in the video — were walking along the main thoroughfare outside Beit Hadassah when settlers yelled insults from a van and one of the Palestinians responded in kind. He said the trio was then detained for more than an hour by the soldier, who had been manning a nearby checkpoint.
A chief military spokesman, Lt. Col. Peter Lerner, said that a review is underway but the army's initial position was that the behavior shown "did not seem to fall in line with what we expect from our soldiers, as far as conduct is concerned."
He said the second youth shown in the video was briefly detained on suspicion he had held a metal chain during the confrontation. Amro said the youth had held prayer beads. He also said Israeli forces repeatedly searched the offices of his group in recent days and made threats against the activists.
Lerner said the soldier faces 20 days in military jail for twice striking unit commanders, not for the incident on the video. Lerner said the scroll on Channel 10's initial report mistakenly said the soldier was being relieved of combat duty.
Still, the military's distancing itself from the soldier, identified only by his first name David, struck a nerve.
A Facebook page with the theme "I stand with David HaNahlawi" — slang for someone from the Nahal Infantry Brigade — scored almost 130,000 likes.
Boaz Golan, who runs a news website, said a Facebook page linked to his site received thousands of photos, many from soldiers. In some, groups posed with handwritten signs saying, "I stand with David HaNahlawi." In others, they arranged uniform insignia, combat boots or weapons next to such signs, not showing their faces.
Golan argued that soldiers must be allowed to use more force and be "given the ability to respond."
Many commentators said young conscripts sent to police the West Bank — war-won land the Palestinians claim for a state — face impossibly complex situations.
Yet there were sharp disagreements.
Some see the Hebron video as a reminder of the urgent need for a peace deal with the Palestinians, although peace talks broke down last month.
The soldier "is not the problem," said Shaul Mofaz, a former defense minister and military chief. "The real story is our inability to move forward in negotiations and get our soldiers out of there."
Yet activists said soldiers suspected of breaking rules of engagement are rarely prosecuted, suggesting regulations are easily broken. From 2009-2012, only 22 of 632 military investigations of violence by soldiers against Palestinians or their property ended in convictions, said the Israeli group B'Tselem.
Video footage of West Bank confrontations has become increasingly common, as Palestinian and Israeli activists use cameras to back up allegations of human rights violations by troops. But large-scale criticism of the army by soldiers remains rare in Israel, where service is compulsory for most Jewish men and women.
The military chief, Lt. Gen. Benny Gantz, said last week that Facebook does not replace clear communication between commanders and soldiers. He said the incident "raises (questions of) military ethics and we need to deal with them on all levels, and that's what we will do."
The Facebook campaign comes a decade after another protest by soldiers, including those who served in Hebron and formed a group called Breaking The Silence.
The group said it has since collected testimony from almost 1,000 soldiers to let Israelis know the moral price they pay when they send their sons and daughters to the West Bank as soldiers.
The two campaigns are different, with the current one apparently mainly seeking stronger army backing for soldiers, but share a message, said Yehuda Shaul of Breaking The Silence.
The current protest is essentially asking, "What do you want from him (the soldier)? That's how things work (in the West Bank)," said Shaul. The behavior shown in the video "is the price of occupation."