Hours after an Israeli army medic was convicted on Wednesday of manslaughter, for executing a wounded Palestinian suspect last year in the occupied West Bank city of Hebron, Israel’s prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, called for the soldier to be pardoned.
Netanyahu’s move completed a full retreat from his initial position. He had first expressed revulsion at the behavior of the medic, Elor Azaria, after viewing video of the incident published by an Israeli human rights group, B’Tselem. That graphic clip, recorded by a witness, showed that Azaria had fired a point-blank shot into the head of Abdel Fattah al-Sharif, a suspect in a knife attack at an army checkpoint who had already been subdued and was lying prone at his feet.
Sympathy for the killer has grown over the past nine months, even as his victim’s family has been forced to view the fatal shot again and again in news reports on the trial in a military court.
Despite seeing the same images of the crime — and more video showing that no medical attention was offered to the suspect after he was immobilized by gunfire during the attack at one of the city’s many military checkpoints — polls found that most Israelis sympathize with Azaria.
(It is important to note that many polls conducted for the Israeli media, including one published the day after the verdict by Israel Hayom, a tabloid Sheldon Adelson set up to support Netanyahu, only survey Jewish Israelis. That poll, finding that 70 percent of respondents “believed Azaria should be pardoned immediately,” drew on “a random pool of 500 Jewish Hebrew-speaking Israelis over the age of 18.”)
Israeli politicians, including Naftali Bennett, the far-right education minister, Shelly Yacimovich, a former leader of the Labour Party, and Miri Regev, the culture minister and a former spokeswoman for the Israeli army, have scrambled to channel the popular mood.
Israeli culture min & firebrand Miri Regev:"I will appeal for pardon for Elor Azaria. This isnt how you behave towards the people's soldier"— Noga Tarnopolsky (@NTarnopolsky) January 4, 2017
As Human Rights Watch reported this week, in the months before the shooting, senior Israeli officials, including the new defense minister, Avigdor Lieberman, and Jerusalem Police district commander, Moshe Edri, had argued that any Palestinian suspected of trying to stab an Israeli, even soldiers tasked with enforcing the occupation, should be subject to immediate execution.
In addition to calls for clemency from politicians, demonstrations of support for Azaria came from hundreds of protesters who scuffled with the police outside the courtroom, waving nationalist banners and at least one Trump sign, and a group of his fellow army medics who dripped their own blood onto a placard claiming that the military’s justice system was “killing us from within.”
Elizabeth Tsurkov, a rights activist in Tel Aviv, noted that among the chants heard at the protest in favor of Azaria was one suggesting that the Israeli army chief of staff, Maj. Gen. Gadi Eisenkot, who defended the prosecution of the soldier in a speech this week, could suffer the same fate as Yitzhak Rabin, the prime minister who was assassinated in 1995 by an opponent of the Oslo Peace Accords.
Chants outside the military court: "Gadi [Eizenkot - IDF CoS] be careful, Rabin is looking for a friend" [you'll be assassinated too]— Elizabeth Tsurkov (@Elizrael) January 4, 2017
Azaria’s supporters and detractors agreed that without the video evidence obtained and published by B’Tselem, an Israeli group that distributes cameras to Palestinians to help them document Israeli army abuses in the occupied territories, the soldier almost certainly would not have been prosecuted. (Indeed, witnesses told B’Tselem that shortly before one of the group’s volunteers, Emad abu-Shamsiyah, filmed Azaria shooting Sharif, a second Palestinian man suspected of taking part in the knife attack, Ramzi Aziz al-Qasrawi, was executed with a gunshot to the head from another soldier as he lay prone on the ground.)
B’Tselem’s executive director, Hagai El-Ad, who calls himself “realistically pessimistic” about the “one-state reality” Israelis will continue to live in as long as their military occupation of the lands seized in 1967 endures, detected something positive in the outcome.
“The verdict clearly states that the B’Tselem video is an objective record of the incident and that it hasn’t been manipulated,” he told The Intercept in an email. Given concerted efforts by the government, the army and right-wing activists to discredit his group’s work, and a frightening campaign of incitement against him personally, that is not insignificant.
He expressed concern, however, for Emad abu-Shamsiyah, who recorded the incident and has faced threats and intimidation ever since. While there are only several hundred Jewish settlers living in the center of Hebron, a city of nearly 200,000 Palestinians, they are protected by thousands of Israeli soldiers and often act with impunity.
El-Ad also stressed that “the exceptional conviction of a single sergeant” should not be taken as a sign that the Israeli military justice system, which is used almost exclusively to prosecute Palestinian civilians living under military rule in the West Bank, is fair. “The occupation’s routine includes the whitewashing of hundreds of cases of killing and injuries of Palestinians, for which no one stands to trial,” he wrote. “That is the grim norm, unchanged by the extremely rare, current, publicized trial.”
He added that the conviction did nothing to change the reality of Israel’s open-ended occupation of the West Bank and East Jerusalem, which has now lasted five decades, and failed to answer “a very basic question: what was an Israeli soldier doing in the heart of a Palestinian city in the first place?”
That sentiment was echoed by Noam Sheizaf, an Israeli journalist and commentator, who wrote on Twitter that most political leaders seemed to hope that “we can be united in forgetting about the occupation as soon as the trial ends.”
The reaction to the case, “is sort of a political theater,” Sheizaf said in an interview. “The real story here is Israeli military control over a civilian population.”
“These high profile dramas prevent us from seeing the real nature of the occupation: an open-air prison which deprives millions of people of their basic rights,” he added. “The fact that the army is prosecuting one person and not others is a sideshow that the Israeli public and political system care about.”
“The court’s verdict, which I think was the right verdict,” Sheizaf said, “didn’t get us any closer to ending the occupation or preventing the next case. The next case is out there, waiting to happen.”