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Killing an incapacitated assailant is a crime, not heroics

Wars and conflicts create heroes and villains, but most of all victims. All three were mixed in the sorry saga in which Israeli soldier Elor Azaria shot and killed Abed Al-Fattah Al-Sharif, a Palestinian who stabbed a soldier from Azaria’s military unit. It would have not caused so much national and international outrage had Azaria not been caught on camera shooting dead Al-Sharif, who was already wounded and lying on the floor, posing no threat.
Last week, an Israeli military court rejected an appeal by Azaria, upholding a manslaughter conviction and a sentence of 18 months in jail. This affair exposed deep divisions in Israeli society and forced a nation, mainly in denial about the ills of the occupation, to make a stand on what the court described as “the unnecessary or disproportional use of a weapon (which) is forbidden and immoral, is ineffective and even harmful.”
The court highlighted that this militia-like behavior by a soldier is not only immoral but also undermines the Israeli military, which is “the organized military of a country that operates according to law… Soldiers must not settle accounts with terrorists after the danger from them has passed.”
Those are bold statements, but do they match with the verdict of manslaughter or the length of incarceration, which will most likely be commuted by a state organ? The political system, the military, society and even the judicial system send mixed messages to young soldiers about right and wrong.
It might be the case that consciously or subconsciously, Israeli society has a collective sense of guilt for sending its youngest and finest (and sometimes the less fine) to do the dirty job of the occupation. It is inevitable for a society that invented the weasel words “purity of arms” and “enlightened occupation” while oppressing millions of Palestinians to eventually face a moral backlash within itself.
The right in Israel has resolved this dilemma by demonizing and dehumanizing the Palestinians, considering them at best inhabitants that are tolerated as long as they do not oppose the occupation. The left justifies military oppression as a necessary evil until a peace deal is reached. This ignores the fact that the daily abuse of Palestinians’ basic human rights makes peace and reconciliation increasingly remote, and in any case is a very flimsy excuse.
Despite being in close proximity, for most Israelis the West Bank and Gaza are on a different planet, and they are largely in complete denial about what is taking place there. The vicious attacks on human rights organizations such as Breaking the Silence and B’Tselem are derived from their holding up a mirror to Israeli society, which it refuses to look at.

The only reason Israeli soldier Elor Azaria was brought in front of a court is because he was caught red-handed, literally, on camera by B’Tselem, leaving the authorities with no option but to indict him.

Yossi Mekelberg

The reflection is too disturbing to ignore for anyone who considers themselves a decent human being, but society would rather ignore the image or break the mirror. Testimonies given by around 1,000 Israeli soldiers to Breaking the Silence provide disturbing evidence of practices similar to what Azaria did, let alone the daily abuse of innocent Palestinians.
This despicable behavior has been going on for years, and in most cases is unpunished and tolerated, as if serving in the military under difficult conditions justifies these immoral and illegal acts. Most likely the only reason Azaria was brought in front of a court is because he was caught red-handed, literally, on camera by B’Tselem, leaving the authorities with no option but to indict him.
It is also becoming increasingly obvious that settlers, especially the most extreme of them, have daily influence on the way soldiers function in the occupied territories. They are involved in operations, and are allowed to harm Palestinians and even use violence against soldiers when they are not satisfied with how they operate.
Moreover, settlers are allowed to indoctrinate soldiers and give them food and beverages, which is against military regulations. This is a significant contributing factor in influencing some soldiers to see Palestinians’ lives through the prism of the settler, and regard military orders as a mere suggestion.
No excuse can be given for what Azaria did, or for those who condoned his acts. Nevertheless, it is an opportunity for an honest discourse in Israel regarding the conditions that enable this criminal behavior. In a country that values the rule of law, even someone who is considered a terrorist, when he or she is disarmed, should be left to the courts to deal.
A court had its say and one has to respect it. Yet it leaves a bitter taste as to how the same court that found Azaria repeatedly lying about his motivation to shoot Al-Sharif was so lenient in terms of his conviction and the severity of the punishment. I doubt that this will deter the next Azaria from doing exactly the same.
• Yossi Mekelberg is professor of international relations at Regent’s University London, where he is head of the International Relations and Social Sciences Program. He is also an associate fellow of the MENA Program at Chatham House. He is a regular contributor to the international written and electronic media.