Acclaimed by most of the population of Israel as a hero and celebrated as an exemplary soldier at a rally with thousands of participants last month in Tel Aviv, Sgt. Elor Azaria appeared Monday for his indictment before the military court in Jaffa. On March 24 in Hebron, Azaria killed in cold blood a Palestinian assailant, Abdel Fattah al Sharif, 21, who lay on the ground dying, unable to do any harm, after having stabbed and lightly wounded a soldier. Yet Azaria is being charged only with negligent homicide and improper behavior.
Military leaders expect the soldier will be found guilty, in order not to tarnish further, especially abroad, the image of an armed forces that has been already at the center of international investigation of war crimes several times in recent years (committed in Gaza). “It is an exceptionally serious incident,” the prosecutor said. “The soldier shot without any justification a terrorist who had already been neutralized, against the rules of engagement. He then changed versions, thus making his testimony not credible.”
On the contrary, the right-wing government in power wants the soldier acquitted, following the wave of public opinion. Too many Israelis — a survey conducted in March by Channel 2 reported that 57 percent of respondents said they opposed the very idea of trying Azaria — believe the sergeant “did the right thing” when faced with a “Palestinian terrorist threat.” On Monday one of his defense lawyers, Ilan Katz, actually accused the military leadership of trying to influence the court convict his client at all costs.
The online news agency for Israeli settlers, Arutz 7, denounced unspecified pressure from political circles on the left to prevent the soldier’s acquittal. In recent months, amid scattered international criticism, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (who condemned Azaria in March), defended the Army’s response to the new intifada that began in October In seven months, about 30 Israelis, two foreign citizens and at least 200 Palestinians have been killed. Most of the Palestinian attackers responsible for stabbings, even attempted stabbing, were killed on the spot.
The summary execution of al Sharif (who had acted together with another Palestinian) was filmed by an activist with B’Tselem, the Israeli Center for Human Rights in the Occupied Territories. The images show that Azaria, several minutes after a soldier was wounded with a knife, advanced toward the Palestinian responsible for the attack who was already on the ground, motionless, badly wounded but still alive. Then he took aim a few meters away from him, and shot him in the head, killing him instantly.
Initially, the military reported that both attackers had been killed immediately. Then the authorities walked back that claim when B’Tselem put the video on the internet. After his arrest, Azaria justified his actions by saying he suspected the “terrorists” were hiding an explosive vest and and that he wanted to prevent al Sharif from gaining access to a knife. This version was also proved wrong with the release of another video, aired Sunday night by an Israeli television network. It shows the knife the soldier is talking about is far away, and the immobilized Palestinian has no way to reach it.
In the light of the evidence presented by the images, Azaria should be convicted of premeditated murder. But this is a political case, with the support of the Israeli right and a good part of the public, who see this trial as the breaking of a tacit collective agreement: Real or apparent stabbings, either attempted or carried out by Palestinians, should be answered with maximum force, immediately, without hesitation.
That theme could dominate another hypothetical trial for two private security guards who 10 days ago killed Maram Abu Ismail, 23, who was pregnant, and her brother Ibrahim Taha, 16, at the Qalandiya checkpoint, between Hebron and Jerusalem. The first official version reported a knife was used against the soldiers. That changed after the father of the victims, and the Haaretz newspaper, called for the broadcast of the surveillance video. So far it hasn’t been released. The same police, local media reported, now doubt that the siblings posed any danger in any way to the Qalandiya soldiers and security guards.