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Israeli occupation in the dock as much as Sergeant Azaria

This killing should not have caught anyone by surprise, considering the ample evidence of similar gross violations of Palestinians’ human rights

Yossi Mekelberg

Published: Updated:

In front of a packed courtroom last week, an Israeli military court convicted Sergeant Elor Azaria, an Israeli soldier, of the manslaughter of a Palestinian militant. He shot the wounded Abdel Fattah al-Sharif at point blank range, killing al-Sharif, who had attacked other Israeli soldiers with a knife only minutes earlier, but was shot by them.

The court rejected the soldier’s version that al-Sharif posed any threat while he was lying bleeding on the ground. This case would never have reached an indictment, let alone a conviction, had it not been for the presence of a human rights researcher from the Israeli organization B’tselem, who recorded this gruesome extrajudicial killing.

Anyone with any common sense and decency would have understood that the only logical conclusion to this footage was indictment, which would most likely lead to a conviction of at least manslaughter. Instead of responding with universal embarrassment and condemnation, this act found wide support within the right wing forces in Israel and their leaders in government.

Not only was an Israeli soldier in the dock, but the entire Israeli occupation and the control of the lives of almost five million Palestinians for nearly 50 years. This killing should not have caught anyone by surprise, considering the ample evidence of similar gross violations of Palestinians’ human rights.

According to B’etselem’s spokesperson Roy Yellin, in recent years there have been 719 cases of bodily harm, ranging from injuries to fatalities, which potentially merited indictment. However, the Israeli authorities turned a blind eye.

Split society

The split in the reaction to the case of Sgt. Azaria is indicative of the divisions within the Israeli society, vis-à-vis relations with the Palestinians, and an example of how the occupation has changed Israeli society, for the worse, beyond recognition. It has also exposed how vulnerable the supremacy the rule of law is in Israel and the preeminence of populist-nationalist politicians in the country’s politics.

Interestingly enough, it was the very highest echelons of the Israeli military, including the Chief of Staff, Gadi Eizenkot, who were quick to distance themselves from Sgt. Azaria’s behavior. For them it represented a complete breakdown in discipline which if allowed to prevail is bound to compromise the professionalism of the army, would make their daily tasks more difficult, and may end in the army becoming no more than a militia-like entity.

It is mind boggling that a leader of whatever political persuasion would argue that unless the country allows war crimes to occur, it loses its ability to defend itself

Yossi Mekelberg

The corollary of this was for them to allow the courts, and the courts only, to decide whether Azaria was guilty or not. On the other hand politicians from the right wing coalition, including Prim Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and leaders of the settlers, reacted diametrically opposite. For them it became an opportunity to increase their popularity among their political supporters, portraying this law breaker soldier as a hero.

Ministers ignored due process, declaring the innocence of Azaria even before any indictment was filed. One minister, in her typical hysterical and inciting manner, threatened that a conviction would harm the ability of the Israeli military to defend Israel, and would lead to youth avoiding serving in combat units.

It is mind boggling that a leader of whatever political persuasion would argue that unless the country allows war crimes to occur, it loses its ability to defend itself. The calls to pardon the soldier, even before the length of sentence has been decided, undermine the country’s judiciary system and make a mockery of the country’s democratic character. This is in addition to a wave of vile incitement against the judges in this trial and the Chief of Staff following the verdict.

Victimizing an entire nation

Those in the political system or among the settlers, who are quick to defend the soldier’s horrific act, are legitimizing the unlawful harming of Palestinians. The entire occupation is based on victimizing an entire nation in the name of Israel’s alleged security and ideological needs. It is based on scaring the whole population into submission.

Daily humiliation at checkpoints; breaking into and searching houses in the middle of the night; confiscating land and preventing people from traveling freely and earning their livelihood; are just a few examples of the daily hardships suffered by Palestinians in the West Bank. And yes, in a civilized society even an assailant has rights. When al-Sharif was incapacitated by the soldiers his fate should have been decided by the courts and not by a mob trial.

The military establishment should bear responsibility for allowing soldiers to be exposed daily to the influence of some of the most extreme settlers. In the case of Hebron, the scene of the killing of al-Sharif, the messianic and most racist of settlers are allowed to indoctrinate soldiers who serve there and even give them gifts. While Palestinians are put on trial for the most minor of offences, some soldiers and settlers are getting away, literally at times, with murder.

The judges were explicit in their verdict that what Sgt. Azaria did was a criminal act, breaking the law in complete disregard of military orders. What the court could not say is that the social discourse within Israeli society makes these acts permissible, even desirable. It is an atmosphere that does not perceive Palestinians as equal human beings entitled to the same rights even on their own land.

When the occupation becomes the norm and the subjugation of millions of people to its whims a daily routine, there will always be those that will see this as consent, even encouragement, to actions such as the one condemned in court last week. However, condemnation and putting the soldier behind bars without rethinking the root causes of this is meaningless.

Those who defend shooting an injured person, who poses no threat, at this point are destroying any semblance of democracy in Israel and its legal justice pillar. Not only is it morally abhorrent, but it also becomes a main source of radicalization among Palestinians. In the process it also deepens the frictions within Israeli society, bringing it to a breaking point.
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Yossi Mekelberg is an Associate Fellow at the Middle East and North Africa Program at the Royal Institute of International Affairs, Chatham House, where he is involved with projects and advisory work on conflict resolution, including Track II negotiations. He is also the Director of the International Relations and Social Sciences Program at Regent’s University in London, where he has taught since 1996. Previously, he was teaching at King’s College London and Tel Aviv University. Mekelberg’s fields of interest are international relations theory, international politics of the Middle East, human rights, and international relations and revolutions. He is a member of the London Committee of Human Rights Watch, serving on the Advocacy and Outreach committee. Mekelberg is a regular contributor to the international media on a wide range of international issues and you can find him on Twitter @YMekelberg.

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