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Elor Azaria and the Israeli army: One conviction doesn’t change systematic impunity

Israeli military patrol the streets in West Bank on 4th September 2014 [Nedal Eshtayah/Apaimages]
Israeli military patrol the streets in West Bank on 4th September 2014 [Nedal Eshtayah/Apaimages]

Israeli soldier Elor Azaria was convicted yesterday of the manslaughter of Abd Al-Fattah Al-Sharif, a 21-year-old Palestinian killed by a shot to the head as he lay wounded and motionless after an alleged attack on uniformed occupation forces in Hebron in March 2016.

Azaria’s sentence has yet to be handed down – and his defence team could well appeal. Furthermore, a number of Israeli ministers have already demanded that Azaria be pardoned, a call supported by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu himself, and 70 per cent of the Israeli public.

But putting all that aside, as well as the fact that he was charged with manslaughter rather than murder, is it not evidence of the Israeli military’s commitment to accountability that Azaria was indicted and convicted at all?

That’s clearly some people’s takeaway from yesterday’s verdict. A leader in the Times today said the military judges had “sent a message about the values of the Israel Defence Forces and the robustness of the country’s democratic institutions.” But does this tally with the facts?

Prior to Azaria, the last Israeli soldier to be convicted of manslaughter was Taysir Heib, jailed for eight years (he served six-and-a-half) for the 2003 killing of British photographer and activist Tom Hurndall. Yet since Heib’s conviction in 2005, Israeli forces have killed more than 6,000 Palestinians.

According to Israeli NGO B’Tselem, the deaths of 121 Palestinian civilians at the hands of Israeli forces in the West Bank from April 2011 to December 2015 have produced only one conviction – for negligent manslaughter in the case of an unarmed Palestinian worker shot dead in 2013.

Another Israeli NGO, Yesh Din, has documented how in 2015, Israeli military investigators opened 186 criminal investigations into alleged offenses by Israeli forces against Palestinians. Sixty-five per cent of these files have been closed, while just four per cent (seven cases) “resulted in disciplinary measures”.

The NGO notes that, during 2015, Israeli occupation forces shot and killed 116 Palestinians in the West Bank and East Jerusalem: yet only 21 investigations were even opened.

This includes numerous cases where, as a number of local and international human rights groups have testified, Israeli forces “killed Palestinians after they no longer posed a threat” or even “killed Palestinians who did not appear to be carrying out an attack at all.”

That is not to mention the Palestinians killed or wounded with live ammunition or rubber-coated metal bullets when Israeli forces suppress unarmed protests or demonstrations; in 2016 alone, more than 1,000 Palestinians were shot by Israeli forces in the occupied Palestinian territory.

Commenting on Azaria’s conviction, legal rights centre Adalah notes that, well over two years after the 2014 assault on the Gaza Strip, there have been zero indictments for “suspected violations of international law committed by the Israeli military – including the killing and wounding of civilians.”

The statistics tell a clear story, of an Israeli army dedicated to maintaining a 50-year-old military occupation, whose forces kill and maim Palestinian civilians – 99 per cent of the time with total impunity. No amount of talk of “values” or “rules of engagement” obfuscate those facts.

Last spring, within the space of a few weeks, the Israeli army closed investigations without indictments into the killing of two Palestinian teenagers: one shot dead during an unarmed protest, the other shot from behind (by a colonel) as he fled after throwing a rock at an army jeep.

So why was Azaria, unlike so many others, tried and convicted? The single most important difference was that the extrajudicial execution was captured on film; crystal clear and irrefutable.

There is another angle to remember. The International Criminal Court is currently considering whether or not to open a full investigation into alleged war crimes committed in the OPT; the Ccourt only assumes jurisdiction if a country’s own legal system is deemed insufficient or incapable.

Some thus believe the conviction could counter a “narrative” that investigations are a whitewash. The essence of Azaria’s military trial, according to one Israeli academic, was to “get a pass mark at The Hague”; Israeli war criminals sacrifice a “junior member of their own” to maintain the system.

It is unlikely to be enough; as Amnesty noted yesterday, Israeli soldiers “who may have committed crimes under international law very seldom face prosecution.” Rather than showing “the vibrancy of Israel’s democracy”, as the Times put it, Azaria’s case is a symptom of a colonial sickness.

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