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IDF shooting in Hebron challenges Israeli democracy

Sgt. Elor Azaria sits surrounded by family in an Israeli military court in Tel Aviv. (AP Photo)

Sgt. Elor Azaria sits surrounded by family in an Israeli military court in Tel Aviv. (AP Photo)

By Sonia Abraham

On March 24, a video  of an Israeli soldier shooting an incapacitated Palestinian point blank in the head was released. It instantly went viral, causing an uproar in Israel and splitting the country between those morally outraged and those defensive of the soldier’s actions.

The incident took place in Hebron, the largest city in the West Bank. Hotly contested due to its religious significance, Hebron has been the site of multiple tragedies since 1967. Two years after the 1995 Oslo II Accords, Israel ceded 80% of the city to the Palestinian Authority, leaving room for a few hundred settlers.

The slain Palestinian, Abed al-Fattah Yusri al-Sharif, along with an accomplice Ramzi Aziz al-Qasrawi, both 21 years old, had charged an Israel Defense Forces (IDF) soldier with knives, inflicting a non-lethal wound. Surrounding soldiers opened fire, killing al-Qasrawi and wounding al-Sharif. While the latter lay on the ground, still alive, a commander approached him and checked for an explosive belt. The situation appeared to be neutralized when, six minutes after the attack, a soldier who has now been identified as Elor Azaria, entered the scene and shot al-Sharif in the head.

The initial argument in favor of Azaria’s action was that the Palestinian youth had already been fatally wounded by the first bullet. However, autopsy reports revealed that it was the bullet to the head that killed him, not the initial shot. Azaria was swiftly arrested and charged with manslaughter; the IDF spokesperson stated the shooting “contradicts the IDF’s ethical code and what is expected from the IDF’s soldiers and commanders.” Yet, as Azaria awaits trial, much of Israel’s public has rallied around him.

In the Knesset, parliamentarians have largely followed party lines, with the more conservative members supporting Azaria, viewing his actions as justified. Two members of Likud—Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s party—have stated that the soldier should be pardoned if convicted. Labeling al-Sharif as a terrorist deserving of death demonstrates both how closely the military and politics are intertwined and also how far the right will go in subversion of the law in order to legitimize the actions the settlement movement’s agenda promotes.

Conservative leader and education minister Naftali Bennett personally called the Azaria family to offer his support, much to the ire of Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon (who is by no means a liberal), who quipped “If someone has transgressed, he needs to be punished, and I would ask you not to intervene in the most delicate of matters.”

Chairwoman Zehava Galon of Meretz—a left wing party—has spoken against those in the government who incite such acts of violence, “it’s impossible to close our eyes to the public atmosphere created by elected officials in the coalition and the government, deliberately and irresponsibly, which is penetrating every segment of our society and corrupting it.” Joint Arab List chairman Ayman Odeh echoed Galon’s remarks, calling for such officials to stand trial alongside Azaria.

Although Netanyahu officially condemned the shooting, stating “what happened in Hebron does not represent the values of the Israel Defense Forces,” he has taken a relatively weak stance on the issue, doing little to address the support for Azaria’s exoneration within his own party or country at large. If anything, he appears to be walking the line between pandering to his base and supporting the official IDF stance, which is to prosecute Azaria.

Rally in favor of Elor Azaria in Tel Aviv. Signs read "we love the IDF, free Elor". (Flash90)

Rally in favor of Elor Azaria in Tel Aviv. Signs read “we love the IDF free Elor”. (Flash90)

On April 19, Azaria’s parents organized a rally for him in Tel Aviv’s Rabin Square. Attended by nearly 2,000 draped in blue and white, the rally featured performances by pop singers and passionate speeches by Azaria’s parents. Although there were some overtly racist chants and posters at the rally, the common thread amongst the attendees was a feeling of victimization. The narrative of self-defense, a feeling of needing to protect “our boys,” is often used in defense of soldiers’ actions. The fact that al-Sharif was wielding a knife and did injure a soldier is seen as justification for his murder. In a poll taken a week after the shooting, a staggering 57% of Israelis did not agree with the IDF’s arrest of Azaria and 42% deemed his behavior “acceptable” and “responsible.”

The death of Abed al-Fattah Yusri al-Sharif is only the latest in a streak of killings that have rocked the country in the past year. But the outpouring of support for al-Sharif’s killer paints a bleak picture. In order for peace to be achieved, the average Israeli citizen must recognize that his or her state is not infallible. The fact that the government itself is divided on whether or not the military court should be able to administer justice is highly troubling.

Perhaps it is significant to note that Elor Azaria is 19 and Abed al-Fattah Yusri al-Sharif was 21 years old. Both were born shortly after the First Intifada, which ended in 1991. Indeed, Elor Azaria could have been any IDF member. Although his actions seem cold blooded, he, like many of his peers, was born into an era of mutual hatred and distrust. Serving a mandatory conscription, he has been thrusted out of childhood with a gun in his hand. Likewise, al-Sharif could have been any disgruntled Palestinian youth who has only known oppression.

As Jewish people all over the world celebrate Passover, the ultimate irony has unfolded. In a security measure to protect settlers during the holiday, the IDF has restricted movement in the West bank, affecting 2.8 million Palestinians. Meanwhile, Sgt. Elor Azaria was granted a 48 hour furlough to spend Passover with his family. Perhaps, during this holiday that celebrates freedom from slavery, it is time for some soul searching in the nation of Israel.