IN most countries, the political class supervises the defence establishment and inhibits its leaders from violating human rights or pursuing violent policies. In Israel a conflicting scene has emerged: politicians are openly rejecting the state’s values and laws and seek belligerent solutions, while the chiefs of the Israel Defence Forces (IDF) and the heads of the intelligence agencies try to pacify them.
Last year on March 24, 2016 Elor Azaria arrived at an Israeli military post in the heart of the West Bank city of Hebron shortly after two Palestinians had stabbed an Israeli soldier in the arm and shoulder. The two attackers were shot during the assault; one was killed and the other, Abdel Fattah al-Sharif, was wounded and lying unarmed on the ground. Sergeant Azaria raised his rifle and fired a bullet into Mr. Sharif’s head, killing him. His response to the questioning faces: “He stabbed my friend and he deserves to die.” While on trial for manslaughter in military court and represented by a set of top-tier lawyers Azaria gave a different motive.
He declared that he had feared that the assailant might have been wearing a suicide vest- an argument that has failed to hold conviction since Azaria did not warn any of the other Israelis present to steer clear. It should also be noted that if this had been a genuine concern, chances are he may have detonated the vest with his bullet killing all within proximity. He later also claimed that Sharif was already dead when he had shot him-video images of the episode show otherwise. The plea was overruled by a panel of three military judges, who ruled that accounts of the incident that Azaria had given were “unreliable and problematic” and his defence inconsistent and flawed. Hereafter, Azaria was sentenced.
On the face of it, the judgment was a triumph for Lt Gen Gadi Eisenkot, the army’s chief of staff who had condemned Sergeant Azaria’s action as soon as images of it were made public by a human rights organization. He had supported an army trial and stated that the killing was a defilement of the army’s code of ethics. The court’s astute judgment should have put a damper on the controversy that has enraptured Israel for almost a year. However, the violent demonstrations that erupted after the ruling have exposed a frightening truth about Israeli society. Azaria’s supporters declare that they would “turn the country upside down” and that he should be allowed to walk away a free man. Many even believe that he is a hero.
The Azaria case has revealed that the armed forces, which once enjoyed complete support of the citizens, can now be immolated on the altar of xenophobic ideology. The high-ups find themselves confronted by citizens waging war against “the citizens’ army,” as the Israeli military likes to call itself. Since the Hebron shooting, commanders had been ordered to elucidate the rules of engagement for their troops. Now they are finding that their authority is being challenged by the ever-increasing stream of pro-Azaria incitement on blogs and social media. Despite all this, General Eisenkot has remained firm stating Azaria wasn’t “the son of all of us,” as his supporters claim and warned that the efforts to portray Azaria as immature and confused only “undermines the most fundamental values that we look for in our soldiers”.
This phenomenon endangers the future of Israeli democracy: the widespread belief that there are circumstances in which the wisdom of the street is preferred to the judgment of a court. It is recognition that a distinction can and should be made between the lives of Arabs and of Jews. It is blatant acceptance that a Jewish soldier or citizen can take the law into his own hands and self-declare himself an executioner; a defiant challenge to the rule of law befouled by racism of the worst kind. The Paris peace conference, which was aimed at kick starting peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians took place on January 15. PM Netanyahu had already branded it futile calling it an “anti-Israel” summit highlighting his commitment (or lack thereof).
Even if the military succeeds in quelling the crowds, the developments present a disturbing picture. The public support for a soldier being prosecuted for shooting a disarmed terrorist shows how far Israel’s security mantra is destroying basic humanitarian norms. It has also revealed crevices in Israeli society that point towards a growing anti-democratic inclination in the country, which is simultaneously reinforcing the lack of accountability for Palestinians within the Israeli justice system. Sergeant Azaria- a poster child for Israel’s moral erosion-did not create this alarming reality. His act only exposed it
— The writer is Research Fellow, Institute of Strategic Studies, a think-bank based in Islamabad.