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The tragedy of the Israeli who stopped a Hamas attack and was executed by an ultra-nationalist soldier

The death of Yuval Doron Castleman, who soldiers mistook for a Palestinian during an attack on a bus stop in Jerusalem, has opened a debate about the rules of engagement and the mass distribution of weapons permits to civilians

Yuval Doron Castelman
Yuval Doron Castleman, in an image released by his family and reproduced by Israeli media.

Last Thursday morning, Yuval Doron Castleman — a name now known throughout Israel — was driving into Jerusalem to go to work. Suddenly, two Palestinians got out of a car and opened fire on a group of people waiting at a bus stop, killing three. Castleman, a former policeman with a weapons permit, jumped out of his car, approached the attackers, and fired at them before they fled.

The first reports in the media followed the usual pattern: alerting to the attack, the rising death toll, the claiming of responsibility (by Hamas) and congratulations to those who had “neutralized” the assailants. However, one piece of information was missing: a fourth fatality that at first did not fit into the puzzle and the details of which have turned into a national debate that has tainted Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and placed the focus on the massive distribution of firearms licenses to civilians and the growing presence in the army of ultra-nationalist settlers. In this case, eager to mark on their rifle butts the notch of a dead Palestinian.

The fourth corpse was Castleman. The “hero of Israel” — as Netanyahu now describes him after initially playing down the tragedy — was shot by an army reservist who had not seen what happened and mistook him for one of the attackers. Wounded, Castleman read the situation: he raised his hands, took off his coat to show that he was not wearing an explosive belt, and shouted in Hebrew: “Don’t shoot, I’m a Jew, I’m an Israeli!” He even tossed his wallet so his identity card could be checked. The soldier, however, fired again, as a video of the incident clearly captures. Castleman would have turned 39 the following day.

It is not the end result that is exceptional: several Palestinian attacks over the years have concluded in the execution of the attacker, when they no longer presented a threat, amid the applause of the right and the silence of others. As the far-right politician Bezalel Smotrich, the current Finance Minister, said in 2016: “A terrorist who goes out to harm Jews does not come back alive. Period.” This modus operandi usually generates little debate, except in paradigmatic cases publicized by human rights organizations, such as one that many remember these days: that of Elor Azaria, an Israeli soldier who in 2016 calmly loaded his rifle and walked toward a Palestinian who lay wounded and completely motionless after stabbing a serviceman in the West Bank city of Hebron, then shot him in the head. His trial divided the country, with massive demonstrations, and turned Azaria — who spent nine months in jail — into a martyr of the right.

The difference in this case is that Castleman risked his life to stop the attack and ended up losing it to a compatriot. His family’s outrage has been growing in parallel with the emergence of more details. “My son has been murdered. There is no other definition for what has been done to him,” his father, Moshe, told the Yediot Aharonot newspaper. His sister, Shaked, said “he was simply executed,” despite having “acted in the most professional manner possible” because of his police background. “There is no other way to look at things,” she added before lamenting finding herself in “a battle to see justice done,” rather than being able to mourn.

The two soldiers who fired the shots had their backs to the attack when it unfolded. They took cover on the ground and did not see what happened. When they got up, they began firing at those they believed to be the attackers. The soldier who killed Castleman has been identified as Aviad Farija, a religious ultranationalist who defines himself as a “hilltop youth,” the term for the most ideological — and sometimes violent — settlers in the West Bank.

Pressure led to Farija’s interrogation by the military police and the confiscation of his weapon on Monday, four days after the incident. It also led to the opening of an investigation that the police — overseen by another ultra right-winger, National Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir — will share with the army, which has been openly critical of the incident.

A man reacts to the attack at a bus stop in Jerusalem, for which Hamas claimed responsibility.
A man reacts to the attack at a bus stop in Jerusalem, for which Hamas claimed responsibility. RONALDO SCHEMIDT (AFP)

“Make an X”

The following is the interview that Farija gave shortly after the shooting to a journalist from Channel 14, the preferred national station of the right wing:

— They say you are a hero.

— I know. I was lucky.

— What do you mean?

— I was in the right place at the right time, but every soldier in the Israeli army is dying to make an X [register a confirmed kill].

— Did you make confirmation of the kill?

— Yes, we shot until they fell.

Although Castleman had long been licensed to carry a pistol, his death has reopened the debate about the risk of accidents or gratuitous shootings from arming more and more civilians. “We should not be afraid to talk about it, to put it on the table,” the president, Isaac Herzog, said Monday during a visit to the family to offer condolences and “apologize” on behalf of the nation.

The number of civilian gun licenses had already risen in recent years in the heat of spikes in violence, which often drive the requests, and changes to the law. But the Hamas attacks on October 7 — in which hundreds of civilians were killed or kidnapped while the security forces took hours to arrive — has led to even more.

Ben-Gvir, who had already relaxed the rules, has since potentially extended permits to another 400,000 Israelis and promised to hand out 10,000 firearms to settlers. His ministry has received 260,000 requests, of which 30,000 have been approved and 50,000 are in the final stages. The director general of the Ministry of National Security, Elazar Ben Harash, and the head of the weapons department, Israel Avishar, recently resigned, the latter because Ben-Gvir’s handpicked appointments facilitated the issuance of permits in his offices which, in his opinion, should be reviewed. On October 30, Ben-Gvir visited a Jerusalem gas station where a Palestinian had just stabbed a policeman. A journalist asked him why he had not yet visited the wounded of October 7. “I’m busy handing out weapons,” he replied.

Netanyahu’s initial reaction Saturday at a press conference further stirred controversy. “That’s life,” he said after defending Ben-Gvir’s policy because arming civilians may carry a “price,” but it “saves lives.”

The discomfort over Netanyahu’s comments — “it would have been difficult to choose more outrageous, contemptuous and offensive words,” wrote Yoav Limor, a commentator for the Israel Hayom newspaper — forced the prime minister to half-heartedly rectify. He telephoned Castleman’s father the following day and made it public in a statement in which he defined the former policeman as “a hero of Israel” who “saved many lives,” adding that his death would be investigated.

The case is not linked to the relaxation in recent years of the rules on opening fire, because in no case do these allow for shooting someone with their arms raised, says Roy Yellin, director of the outreach department of the Israeli human rights NGO B’Tselem. Some changes concern war zones (which does not include East Jerusalem) and others the power to shoot, which “has become the norm in the streets,” he adds, if the soldier feels his life is in danger because stones or a Molotov cocktail have been thrown.

For Yellin, it is more about the prevailing message after years of statements by right-wing politicians that they don’t want to see attackers arrested. “Many in the government today once supported Azaria,” he says, which “intermingles” with Farija’s ideological profile: “If he had been a more professional and rule-sensitive soldier, he wouldn’t have done it. But he was an ideological one, and one who believes that the life of an Arab is worth less than that of a Jew.”

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