Elor Azaria's gun: Redefining the rifts in Israeli society

Elor Azaria's gun: Redefining the rifts in Israeli society
In-depth: Reactions to the Elor Azaria affair - in which an Israeli soldier shot dead a wounded Palestinian alleged attacker, have crystalised deeply-engrained rifts within Israeli society, writes Hannah Gal.
8 min read
13 January, 2017
Israeli soldier Elor Azaria shot a wounded Palestinian assailant in the head [AFP]

Ten trying months after his single gunshot killed a man and rattled Israel, Sergeant Elor Azaria was convicted of manslaughter.

Azaria's Hebron shooting in March 2016 of a wounded Palestinian man seems to have captivated and polarised the Israeli nation unlike any other affair in recent history.

It has been the most extensively reported story in the country over the past year, generating more coverage than the explosive trial of former president Katsav who was convicted of rape, and that of corrupt former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert.

On January 4, under the world media's intense gaze, Central Command Chief Justice Colonel Maya Heller read out the court's decision for more than two hours, systematically quashing each and every one of the defence's arguments.

The court fully rejected the defence's claim that the Palestinian assailant was already dead before Azaria shot him, adding that, as the wounded assailant did not pose any threat, Azaria "opened fire in violation of orders".

The shooting in the Tel Rumeida district of Hebron took place on 24 March 2016, while Azaria was serving as a medic in the Israeli Armed Forces' Shimshon Battalion of the Kfir Brigade.

On the fatal day, Azaria's friend and fellow soldier was stabbed by the Palestinian Abd al-Fatah al-Sharif and another Palestinian man, Ramzi al-Qasrawi. Soldiers at the scene quickly opened fire, killing the second Palestinian man and seriously wounding Sharif.

It was moments later, when Sharif was lying incapacitated on the ground, that Azaria pointed the gun at him and fired the fatal shot.

Within days of the incident, politicians on all sides entered the ring, boldly commenting on Azaria's actions

At the busy Hebron scene, Company Commander Major Tom Na'aman, questioned Azaria about his disorderly act and alerted authorities to the "serious incident" that had taken place. Several hours later, Azaria was arrested by military police. 

The entire Hebron incident was filmed by B'Tselem volunteer Imad Abu Shamsiyeh and used as evidence in court. The disturbing footage itself was undoubtedly one of the main reasons the case had gathered such unprecedented national momentum, providing Israelis on both sides of the political fence with a concrete point of reference.

But the "clarifier" of what happened at the tragic scene had also become the exposer of deeply engrained rifts within Israeli society. Within days of the incident, politicians on all sides entered the ring, boldly commenting on Azaria's actions.

Most notable was then-Defence Minister Moshe Yaalon's 28 March Knesset speech, in which he described Azaria's conduct as contradicting the Israeli military's "high moral ethos", calling him chayal shesarach (a soldier who has gone bad).

Yaalon's statement outraged many Israelis - including PM Netanyahu - and ultimately led to his swift resignation. Netanyahu himself entered the debate on 31 March when he made a personal phone call to Azaria's parents, promising the soldier's father, a former police offier, an "honest and thorough investigation".

It was not long before outrage came flooding in from all sections of Israeli society. Some were angered by a B'Tselem volunteer being allowed to film the incident, raising ongoing concerns over "foreign leftist European bodies sponsoring an anti-Israel agenda", while to anti-settlement campaigners, the reality of settlers "casually mixing" with soldiers at the scene was hard to stomach.

Anti-occupationists saw the shocking incident as an ominously timed milestone in the occupation's bitter 50-year history

There were some who faulted the commander's conduct and apparent chaos at the Hebron scene, while anti-occupationists saw the shocking incident as an ominously timed milestone in the occupation's bitter 50-year history.

Many pointed to Azaria's right-wing upbringing and his affiliation to La Familia (the notorious Beitar FC supporters' group) as facilitators of his violent actions, while others wondered if his Sephardi origin affected his treatment in any way.

In a nation where the army is part of everyone's life, many spoke of the Israel Armed Forces' duty to protect "the nation's children" as they face tough dilemmas.

Some referred to the armed forces' own policy dictating that any incident in which a citizen is killed must lead to a full military investigation as proof that Azaria was treated unfairly; the last wave of "lone terrorists", they argued, saw many cases where soldiers were present when "terrorists" got killed, but soldiers were seen as "acting with due discretion" and were not charged. 

Most of all, this case has split Israel into those seeing Azaria as a fully justified soldier, who shot a "terrorist" whose clear intention was to kill Jews, vs those for whom Azaria broke the Israeli military's code of ethical practice, Tohar HaNeshek, rocking the sacred pedestal on which the respected Israeli army proudly stands.

And so, within days, the discussion shifted from the fate of a low-ranking officer to that of the fate of the nation's character. 

On 18 April, Azaria was officially charged with manslaughter. The sight of Azaria's hurting parents, supporting their son at the trying court sessions became part of Israelis' daily lives, and the couple's independent campaign to raise funds for their son's top defence team effortlessly met its target. 

Senior Israeli Armed Forces Reserves officers shifted the blame from inexperienced Azaria to poor command and handling of the scene

The trial itself was rife with controversy and division. Most notable were the testimonies of Azaria's friend who recalled the accused at the scene speaking of a "terrorist" who "deserves to die", and Pathologist Dr Hadas Gips (Abu Kabir Forensic Institute) who stated that bleeding in Sharif's brain suggested that his heart was still beating when the bullet fired by Azaria hit his head.

Senior Israeli military reserve officers - Uzi Dayan, Shmuel Zakai and Dan Bitton - shifted the blame from the inexperienced Azaria to poor command and handling of the scene. The three warned against a court ruling that would jeopardise soldiers' ability to shoot "in order to save lives" in future, and spoke of irresponsible politicians' statements affecting the trial with undue bias. 

Addressing the latter claim and describing the incident as "leading to a public discussion unlike anything we have previously witnessed", Judges Colonel Maya Heller, Colonel Karmel Wahabi and Colonel Yaron Sitvon gave the assurance that "the verdict was based on evidence presented to the court".

Azaria's testimony was deemed "unreliable" and "changing" and his words at the scene saying the "terrorist deserves to die because he stabbed my friend" weighed heavily on judges' minds and ultimately determined his fate.

"...There was no justification to the shooting," stated Heller. "The fact that there was a terrorist on the ground whose intent was to kill soldiers does not justify such disproportionate action; Azaria's shooting contradicts (the army's) instructions regarding open fire."

The pro-Azaria demonstrations outside the courthouse and subsequent protest rallies led to several arrests for incitement against the judges and chief of staff Gadi Eisencott, who upset many by declaring that Israeli soldiers "are not our children". The enraged crowd shouted "Gadi be careful, Rabin is looking for a friend", and the threatened judges were awarded full police protection.

It brings to light the fact that Israeli soldiers many times use lethal force with no justification 

- B'Tselem spokesperson Amit Gilutz

Human rights organisation B'Tselem, whose volunteer documented the Hebron shooting, sees this "rare conviction as an exception" to the rule. "It brings to light the fact that Israeli soldiers many times use lethal force with no justification," says B'Tselem spokesperson Amit Gilutz.

"We are not speaking just of soldiers on the ground but also of Israeli policymakers and high-ranking officers that the Israeli Military Law Enforcement System is not designed to investigate.

"To us this is a system that doesn't hold accountable those who should be held accountable, and this case does not change this grim picture."

B'Tselem's stand is a tricky one for many Israelis to accept.

"This kind of incident has nothing to do with the occupation," IT consultant Adi tells me. "Arabs' hatred of Jews started long before 1967 or even 1948; this attack is aimed at Jews."

Noted Yediot writer Ben Dror Yemini agrees with the separation of this incident from the occupation, saying "Azaria is not a hero, he is a soldier who tripped, but whoever places both justified and false occupation-related claims on his shoulders is fleeing from responsibility."

These responses baffle Gilutz. "How can anybody claim that this incident is not related to the occupation? Soldiers are there to guard the civil settlers who live at the heart of Palestinian population. The point is that the people living between Jordan and the sea need their human rights respected and this responsibility is hard for many Israelis to acknowledge."

Belonging to the growing group of "awakened leftist" Israelis, an equally dismayed Adi replies with the question "what about the human rights of innocent Israelis maimed and killed by Palestinian terrorists?"

Amit, Adi's, Ifat's and Ben Dror's views echo those of dozens I spoke to in Israel before, during and after the verdict was delivered. Azaria's case has brought to the surface the changing political paradigm within Israeli society, with a clear ongoing shift from the left to the centre and right.

With politicians including Education Minister Naftali Bennett, Prime Minister Netanyahu, Culture Minister Miri Regev and even Labour's Shelly Yacimovich calling for a pardon, Azaria's sentencing is already high on the news agenda. 

It is feared that a lenient prison term will signal a compromise on the Israeli military's "strict ethical stand", whereas a harsh sentence will be seen by many as punishing the soldier to appease public and world opinion.

What is certain is that Elor Azaria's name will be forever forged in the Israeli conciousness.   

Hannah Gal is a London/LA based journalist with credits including The Guardian, The Independent, The Huffington Post, The Knowledge, BJP, MAdobe and Apple among others. She specialises in social issues as well as films and the arts and is an award-winning filmmaker and photographer.

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.