JERUSALEM -- When Israeli television broadcast scenes of a Palestinian mob beating an Israeli soldier during a protest last week, Israelis saw their renowned fighting forces in a posture many had never seen before -- defenseless and cowering.
In a country where military service is mandatory and young men vie for spots in elite combat units, many didn't like what they saw. They vented their anger and dismay at the 19-year-old soldier, Cpl. Asaf Miara, accusing him of cowardice and sullying the vaunted image of the Israel Defense Force.
"What in God's name is happening to us? Are we a country with a strong IDF or have we turned into a wimp state?" columnist Yaakov Erez wrote in the daily newspaper Ma'ariv. "When attacked, so we were taught, you strike back tenfold."
Brig. Gen. Yaakov Zigron told a parliamentary committee, "Miara should have opened fire, even with intent to kill if necessary, without compromise and without hesitation."
Ephraim Sneh, a member of the Israeli parliament and a former military officer, offered a more evenhanded assessment.
"As a retired general and former governor of the West Bank, I can't praise [Miara] too much. He's not a soldier to be proud of," Sneh said. "But I don't think it's fair for people who were not in those circumstances to criticize him."
The Israeli army decided yesterday to court-martial Miara -- but not for failing to fire his M-16 rifle at his attackers. He will be charged with not carrying a loaded weapon and leaving his base without permission.
Miara's mother, among his strongest defenders, isn't surprised by the reaction of the military and others.
"The army has been perceived in Israeli society for so many years as a sacred cow that nobody touches," says Lisa Miara, 41, British by birth and a resident of Israel since 1982. "They would have preferred to have a bunch of Palestinians dead and their image strengthened."
The attack occurred last week on the outskirts of the West Bank city of Ramallah, where Palestinian college students were protesting Israel's refusal to release certain Palestinian political prisoners.
The students hurled stones at cars as they entered a traffic circle. The car in which Miara was riding veered off the road under the hail of stones. Its driver leaped from the car and ran. The mob converged on the car, yanked open the door and pulled out Miara, who crouched on the ground as stones flew. One protester pummeled Miara's head with a rock.
The soldier eventually got up and ran off, his head bleeding. The Palestinian demonstrators stole his rifle, but it was recovered by Palestinian police.
Television reporters filmed the entire attack and broadcast it repeatedly throughout Israel. The graphic scene unnerved many viewers. Initially the focus was on the fury of the Palestinian protesters. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his Cabinet, after watching the footage, placed new conditions on the implementation of the Wye memorandum, the latest peace initiative signed in Washington on Oct. 23.
But soon the spotlight shifted to Miara and his conduct under attack. Where was his gun? Why didn't he shoot? Two soldiers in a jeep who encountered the stone-throwing students and sped off also were criticized.
Magnified by its broadcast worldwide, the incident hit at two core issues for Israelis -- their vulnerability in a region with a long history of hostility to the Jewish state and their reputation as having one of the world's elite and aggressive fighting forces.
Ze'ev Sternhow, a political scientist at Hebrew University, draws a distinction between the actions of Israel's best fighters and the behavior of one soldier.
"The quality of the elite units has not changed over the years. It is still as good and as trustworthy today as it was three generations ago," he says. But "the simple soldiers" -- those with routine jobs -- "never were big heroes. Not then, and not now."
What has changed, Sternhow says, is the public's relationship to the Israeli military.
"The IDF is exposed to criticism. The rotten elements, the weak elements, even the idiotic elements of the IDF always existed, but we were not permitted to talk about them 25 years ago," Sternhow says. "Today, every mistake the IDF makes is under the media microscope. In the 1950s, all types of military blunders were shielded by the censor from public scrutiny."
Today, he says, "the IDF's weaknesses are laid open for all to see. Mothers want to know what's going on with their sons, why they're dying, why they're not eating right, why they're not receiving enough outfits. Thirty years ago, did anyone dare to ask these questions? This atmosphere of questioning is a
function of an increasingly liberal society."
Israeli media reports have portrayed Miara as a troubled soldier with disciplinary problems who had left his military base without permission and violated army regulations by not having his weapon with him and loaded. Some reports alleged that his rifle was on the back seat of the car.
In general, according to Lt. Col. Sharon Grinker, an army spokesman, an Israeli soldier in the occupied territories is supposed to travel only in armored cars or buses or with an official military transport.
"An IDF soldier is not supposed to be in such a situation in the first place, where he is alone, in the territories, in the middle of mayhem," says Grinker. "In principle, if a soldier's life is in danger, he is permitted to use fire to defend himself and others."
He insists that the reputation of the Israeli army remains intact: "One incident cannot affect the image of an entire army. This was a crowd that went crazy and took it out on the first passing crowd, that's all. Rocks know no boundaries."
Miara's family has hired an attorney to defend their son in a military court. His mother says he had his gun on his lap and was wearing his seat belt. She says he had received the M-16 rifle only four days before and had not been trained to use it.
She says her son was "highly motivated" when he reported for his army service. "He was determined to go only to a combat unit, an elite combat unit. He knew he would be putting his life on the line and was prepared to do so."
She says she and her husband have fielded thousands of telephone calls from sympathizers. "The one phrase that Israelis are using over and over again," she says, "is that the army likes their heroes dead."
Sneh, the retired general and Israeli lawmaker, hopes that his country learned something from the soldier's public humiliation.
"I hope it gave to some Israelis a look in the mirror of what is the fate of those who are not ready to fight," he says. "There is no second chance for the weak."
Pub Date: 12/10/98