Last spring, an Israeli killer was caught on camera carefully and deliberately conversing with a colleague, preparing his weapon and then shooting dead a seriously inured prone Palestinian youth; Abd Al-Fattah Yusri Al-Sharif, 21, was shot in the head. The murderer was Elor Azaria, an Israeli army “medic”.
Israel soon claimed that Al-Sharif had tried to attack its occupation soldiers, and so was a “terrorist” deserving of extra-judicial, instantly-executed, capital punishment. However, the killing happened in Hebron, and international law says that Hebron is occupied territory and that Israeli soldiers are part of an illegal occupation army. The right to use armed force to resist occupation is enshrined in international law. Resistance to Israel’s occupation, therefore, is not “terrorism”.
In any case, the Israeli army frequently lies about attacks against its soldiers and tampers with evidence in an attempt to justify its murder of Palestinian civilians, often including children. In this case, a video shows, in graphic detail, the very deliberate and calculated nature of the murder.
Al-Sharif, lying prone on the ground was no danger to anyone. He had clearly been seriously wounded, and was barely moving. Azaria discussed something with one of the group of soldiers standing around calmly, while a soldier who appears to have been scratched on his back got into an ambulance. Azaria and his colleague stared at the injured Palestinian, then seem to have reached a conclusion. The “medic” then walked purposely towards Al-Sharif and shot him directly in the head, killing him.
Contrary to the media propaganda that came later, this murder appeared very much to have been carried out on the orders of a superior.
Azaria’s cold-blooded murder of Al-Sharif was nothing unusual for the Israeli army. The murder of Palestinians by Israeli soldiers and settlers is routine in the occupied West Bank, where Israel’s military dictatorship holds sway. The only unusual thing on this occasion was that a Palestinian working for the Israeli human rights group B’Tselem happened to capture the precise moment of the murder on camera.
A correspondent with the Tel Aviv newspaper Ha’aretz put it well: “Without the images that went viral in the country and around the world, Azaria’s story may have very well played out differently, and nobody would have known his name.” No different, indeed, to the many other Israeli soldiers who murder Palestinian civilians and get away with it.
The video made headlines in Israel and around the world. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu felt forced to appear to be doing something, and so made Azaria into the scapegoat. He was charged, and eventually (last month) convicted over the killing. This, though, was never really just about one “bad apple”; it is really about the whole corrupt system of Israel’s brutal occupation.
In Israel, Azaria’s murder of an injured Palestinian was extremely popular. So much so, in fact, that he was never charged with murder, only with “manslaughter”. Allison Kaplan Sommer, the same Ha’aretz writer, put it like this: “While he may not have begun this ordeal as a celebrity, Elor Azaria is famous now. More importantly, he possesses something even more powerful: a nation full of citizens who identify with his plight.”
The fact that the killer was charged only with “manslaughter” tells you all you need to know about how cheap Palestinian lives are considered by and in racist Israel.
Furthermore, the killer may even escape this much lesser sentence; Netanyahu is calling for him to be pardoned. Azaria’s crime has became a cause célèbre in Israel, and not only among the neo-fascists who picketed the trial, shouting racist abuse at Palestinians and gathering in pro-Azaria rallies at which popular slogans included “Death to the Arabs”, “Kill them all” and “A Jew is a soul/An Arab is a son of a whore”. Support for the murderer extended across the Israeli political spectrum, with 67 per cent of Israelis backing a pardon for the army sergeant.
Shelly Yacimovitch, the former leader of the Israeli Labour Party also called for Netanyahu to pardon Azaria, fretting that the murderer’s “narrow shoulders will not be able to withstand the weight” of his sentence. The current leader of the Labour Party (which has a UK affiliate in the form of the Jewish Labour Movement, whose director is a former Israeli embassy officer) Isaac Herzog, said that the murderer was “the victim of a situation.”
Arguably the most telling thing about the whole affair was the evidence of one particular witness in the trial. Former settler security chief Eliyahu Liebman spoke in court in Azaria’s defence; he clarified that what Azaria had done was very much routine for the Israeli army.
This testimony was supposed to put Azaria in a good light; maybe it did in Israel. But what it also did was to demonstrate, albeit inadvertently, just how normalised and institutionalised the Israeli murder of Palestinians really is. Azaria is just the symptom of the wider disease that is Israel’s military occupation.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.