An IDF soldier killed a civilian who shot at terrorists, raising hard questions about vigilante culture in Israel


TEL AVIV ((JEWISH REVIEW)) — When he spoke with a news anchor on Thursday night, Israeli reservist Aviad Frija was hailed by right-wing politicians and commentators as a hero for his role in responding to a terror attack at a Jerusalem bus stop earlier that day.

By Monday, Frija was arrested by the IDF and under investigation. The man he had shot was not a suspected terrorist but an Israeli civilian who had himself played a role in halting the attack.

According to video from the scene, Frija had shot the man, a 38-year-old lawyer named Yuval Doron Castleman, after Castleman had gotten on his knees, dropped his gun and put his hands in the air to show that he was not a threat. Castleman, a former police officer turned lawyer, was initially left bleeding on the ground and later died of his wounds, a day shy of his 38th birthday.

Castleman “did everything he needed to do so they could identify him. He went down on his knees, opened his jacket to show he didn’t have any explosives on him, yelled at them, ‘Don’t shoot, I’m Jewish, I’m Israeli,’ and they continued to shoot him,” his father, Moshe Castleman, said on Israeli Army Radio.

Castleman’s death has drawn scrutiny to the ways in which Israel’s right-wing government has encouraged everyday Israelis to own guns and fight terror themselves — a gambit to boost security that, critics say, has instead led to the spilling of more Israeli blood. And Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu — who already faces widespread public disapproval over his handling of Hamas’ Oct. 7 attack on Israel — has come in for more criticism in recent days over what some say was a flippant response to Castleman’s death.

“This has allowed a jungle in terms of everything related to distributing weapons, using weapons,” Eran Etzion, a former deputy head of Israel’s National Security Council, said on Kan, Israel’s public broadcaster. “This is a terrible thing that will have far-reaching consequences… an atmosphere where everyone will take a weapon, and use it.”

The family of Israeli Yuval Castleman mourns at his house in Kiryat Tivyon, in northern Israel, on Dec. 3, 2023. (Gil Cohen-Magen/AFP via Getty Images)

Castleman’s family is also castigating officials for their response. His father and sister Shaked have called his death an “execution,” while his sister Noga said the family did not hear from the police until several hours after the incident and did not get the chance to comfort Castleman in his final hours of life.

“We carried on with our lives as he was fighting for his life,” Noga said, according to Kan. “We weren’t there to caress him, to call to him. I wouldn’t wish upon anyone that they hear what happened to a loved one in such an unclear way.”

After his death, said Shaked, “instead of mourning, we find ourselves in a war for justice.”

For more than a year, Itamar Ben-Gvir, Israel’s far-right national security minister, has encouraged private citizens to own guns and has made Israel’s historically strict gun-control requirements more lenient. He has also pushed to loosen open-fire regulations for police officers, whom he oversees. Earlier this year, he praised an Israeli settler who killed a Palestinian in an altercation. (Frija is a member of the Hilltop Youth, a group of young extremist settlers, as well as a reservist in the IDF.)

Since Oct. 7, Ben-Gvir said in a recent government hearing, more than 260,000 people have applied for gun licenses. “When the war started, we knew that we were right when we said that every place that has a weapon can save a life,” he said at a recent meeting of his party, Otzma Yehudit or Jewish Power.

But Ben-Gvir’s policies have faced backlash. In recent weeks, Israeli media reported that U.S. officials were threatening to stop supplying guns to Israel if they continued to wind up in the hands of civilians. (The Department of State declined to comment, with an official telling (JEWISH REVIEW) the department does not comment as a matter of policy on “the status of licensed direct commercial defense sales activities.”) On Monday, the head of Israel’s Firearm Licensing Department resigned in protest of the loosened gun ownership requirements.

Itamar Ben-Gvir, Israel’s minister of national security, attends the scene of a terror shooting attack at the entrance to Jerusalem, Nov 30, 2023. (Chaim Goldberg/Flash90)

And critics of Netanyahu’s government have drawn a link between Ben-Gvir’s policies and Frija’s shooting of Castleman, even though Frija was in uniform at the time.

Moshe Yaalon, a former Netanyahu ally and defense minister, posted online that Ben Gvir’s “populist calls” to loosen open-fire regulations “contributed to the tragic result.” Yaalon and others also linked the shooting to a 2016 incident in which IDF soldier Elor Azaria shot dead a disarmed Palestinian terrorist who was lying on the ground. Azaria was tried and convicted but also became a hero to some on the right.

Netayahu’s critics have also chided him for his initial response to the incident, in which he defended Ben-Gvir’s policy though he acknowledged that it posed potential dangers.

“We know that in the waves of terror in the last decade and earlier, the presence of armed civilians often saves the situation and has prevented a huge disaster,” he said. “I think that in the present situation we need to continue this policy. I fully support that. It may be that we will pay a price for this, and that’s life.”

The “that’s life” comment particularly irked critics, and on Sunday, Netanyahu offered a more sympathetic message in a video shared to his social media in which he said he had spoken to Castleman’s father.

“Yuval Doron Castleman is a hero of Israel. In a supreme act of bravery, Yuval saved many lives,” Netanyahu said. “However, unfortunately, a terrible tragedy occurred there – and the man who had saved others was killed. There must be a thorough inquiry.”

Yuval Castleman, 37, died after an IDF soldier shot him as he responded to a terrorist attack in Jerusalem, Nov. 30, 2023. (Courtesy)

In the days following the incident, the IDF has released several statements indicating that its rules of engagement forbid firing upon suspects with their hands raised, and announced on Monday that Frija is being detained and questioned in what is called a “preliminary arrest.” Since his initial interview, Frija has subsequently claimed that he was acting out of fear for his own life.

Critics of the shooting on the left do not see it as an isolated incident, but as the result of a culture that has been nurtured for years on the Israeli right. Avner Gvaryahu, director of the Breaking the Silence, an anti-occupation group focused on the experiences of combat veterans, described a “years-long campaign led by the right-wing politicians, organizations, spokespeople, and journalists to ‘not tie the hands of our soldiers’” when they face a threat — though he noted that it was impossible to know what Frija was thinking in the moment.

Gvaryahu, whose organization leads tours in the West Bank, said he sees that culture taking hold there as well. He said, from what he’s witnessed, rules of engagement for soldiers are “becoming more flexible, basically, making it easier to shoot.”

In the face of the criticism, Ben Gvir and others on the right have portrayed the incident as a horrible accident. In an online post, right-wing journalist Yotam Zimri called the shooting a “terrible tragedy” and implied that it was wrong to place blame on Frija.

“There are no bad guys in this story except for the two Arab murderers,” he said, referring to the two Hamas-affiliated terrorists who perpetrated Thursday’s attack. “If you’re looking for other bad guys, there’s something wrong with you.”

But during a visit with Castleman’s family on Monday, Israeli President Isaac Herzog acknowledged that the state bore some responsibility for his death.

“I have come here not as a private citizen but as the president of the state of Israel, to ask forgiveness and express great appreciation for a hero of Israel who did something great and courageous,” Herzog said, adding that Castleman “paid with his life in what I see as the worst and most outrageous way possible.”