There was no military necessity for last week’s slaying of Abdel Fattah Al-Sharif in Hebron. He was clearly wound, incapacitated and posed no imminent threat to the Israeli soldier who shot him. Even by Israel’s standards it was a callous act of murder. The Israeli daily Haaretz newspaper rightly described it as a “cold-blooded execution”; one that can and must, therefore, reinforce calls for an international investigation into Israel’s policy of extrajudicial executions in the occupied Palestinian territories.
When Sweden’s foreign Minister Margot Wallstrom called for such an investigation back in January the Israeli foreign ministry dismissed her intervention as “irresponsible and delusional”. The shooting of 21-year-old Al-Sharif, which was recorded on video and has since gone viral on the internet, will now revive and add a greater sense of urgency to her call.
Despite its cruelty the murder of Al-Sharif was by no means an isolated act. The grim reality is that almost every day young Palestinians are killed in almost similar circumstances. All it takes is for a fanatic settler or trigger-happy soldier to suspect him, or her, of being a “terrorist”.
Admittedly, Israel’s political and religious establishments have both encouraged this culture of impunity. In mid-March the chief Sephardi Rabbi Israel Yitzhak issued an edict stating that it was a religious imperative to kill Palestinians armed with knives, and urged soldiers not to worry about the courts or the army on the matter.
For several years now Israeli politicians have been toying with the idea of writing into law the death penalty for Palestinians. In 2006, the leader of the Yisrael Beiteinu party, Avigdor Lieberman, argued during a parliamentary debate that Arab parliamentarians who talk to Hamas should be executed.
Last year the Israeli news website Mako reported Lieberman as saying: “Anyone who’s with us should be given everything – up to half the kingdom. Anyone who’s against us, there’s nothing to do – we should raise an axe and cut off his head; otherwise we won’t survive here.”
In the wake of the current intifada in the occupied West Bank and Jerusalem, Israeli politicians have revived, yet again, the debate on capital punishment. They have been egged on by an out pouring of public support for Elor Azarya, the soldier who “executed” Al-Sharif. More than 50,000 Israelis signed an online petition demanding he be awarded a medal; others have staged public rallies in support of the offending soldier.
Despite these pressures it is unlikely that even the Israeli establishment will accede to calls for the death penalty or even exonerate Azarya completely. The international fallout from the execution is yet to run its course. Philip Luther, director of the Middle East and North Africa Programme at Amnesty International said: “The shooting of a wounded and incapacitated person, even if they have been involved in an attack, has absolutely no justification and must be prosecuted as a potential war crime.” Similar concerns have been raised even from within the normally subservient US Congress.
A recent decision to defer a ministerial discussion on the death penalty does not mean that it has been taken off the agenda. The Israeli establishment has only done so for now because of the damage the execution of Al-Sharif has done to its claim of being a liberal democracy and bastion of civilised values. Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu’s oft repeated mantra that the Israeli army is the most “moral” army in the world has been exposed as a shameless canard.
To the Palestinians, it hardly matters if Israel legislates to adopt capital punishment. It is, after all, a postscript of a practice that has long been in effect, all be it without due process in courts of law. For them, life under military occupation is no longer an option.
Clearly, the Netanyahu government wants its people to believe that executions, house demolitions and deportations are all signs of strength. They are not. At best, they reflect the weakness and ineffectiveness of a government that is politically bankrupt and incapable of finding a solution to the current uprising. If he is to withstand the challenge posed by opposition figures like Lieberman and his fellow travelers, Netanyahu must continue to give a free hand to his “moral” army and extremist settlers to act with impunity. Ultimately, for the Palestinians it is only through self-defence that they will ensure self-preservation.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.