What the Azaria Trial Tells Us (Again) about Israel

Immediately after the murder Azaria was videoed shaking hands with Baruch Marzel. (Photo: Video grab)

By Jeremy Salt 

The injustice in the trial of Elor Azaria begins with the charge, manslaughter. In March, 2016, Azaria walked up to the body of a severely wounded Palestinian, Abd al Fatah al Sharif, and shot him in the head as he lay on the ground. Video of the scene shows a bare-chested Israeli soldier being treated for minor wounds received during an alleged stabbing attack in Hebron by Al Sharif and another Palestinian, Ramzi Aziz al Qasrawi. Whereas the soldier received immediate medical attention none was summoned for the two Palestinians. In any case, the precise circumstances of the clash between the soldiers and the two Palestinians were soon overtaken by what followed when Azaria arrived on the scene six minutes later, cocked his rifle and fired.

Al Qasrawi was fatally wounded and died on the spot.   Al Sharif was seriously wounded, but, according to a pathologist giving evidence at Azaria’s trial, the wound was not fatal and he would have survived had he been given medical attention. Instead, Azaria, an IDF medic, put a bullet into his head, remarking, according to the evidence presented in court, ‘he needs to die.’ 

Azaria was not imprisoned but kept under ‘open arrest’ an at army base, which gave him freedom of movement around the base if not the freedom to leave it.  Even the charge of manslaughter rather than murder brought cries of outrage from his supporters, not just his family and friends but the settler lobby and the extremist right figures dominating Israeli politics, notably Avigdor Lieberman and Naftali Bennett, whose attitude can be summed up in the remark he made in 2013 that ‘I’ve killed lots of Arabs in my life and there’s no problem with that.’  So, if Elor Azaria shoots a wounded Palestinian terrorist, what’s the problem with that? He should not have been charged with anything but rather should have been commended for his bravery and his quick action in neutralizing a wounded but possibly still dangerous ‘terrorist.’ 

Clearly Azaria should have been charged with murder.  He deliberately shot a wounded man in the head and that is not ‘manslaughter.’  Although he claimed to believe the Palestinian may have been a wearing a suicide belt, this was dismissed in the court hearing as one of the many lies he was telling.   No, in truth, Al Sharif was a Palestinian who needed to die for no other real reason than that he was a Palestinian.  Azaria’s behavior was not the slightest bit aberrant but rather representative of extreme Zionist thinking about the Palestinians that begins with the denial of their rights and often ends in their death.  Because they have no right to be on the land they have no right of resistance or even the right to a fair trial, if such a thing can be imagined for a people living under occupation.  Accordingly, ‘terrorists’ who are only wounded should be finished off on the spot. No soldier or civilian should ever be convicted just for doing their duty or for shooting any Palestinian who even raises their suspicions.  

Immediately after the murder Azaria was videoed shaking hands with Baruch Marzel.  The affinities between them are clear.  Azaria believes Palestinians need to die and so does Marzel.  Hebron is a city in which unarmed Palestinians live daily at the mercy not just of Zionist police or soldiers but of heavily armed settlers, who swagger through the streets with loaded assault rifles over their shoulder, provoking the Palestinians and ready to kill them at the slightest opportunity.  The American-born settler Marzel is a leader of this cowardly pack.  Formerly associated with Rabbi Meir Kahane’s Kach party he now forms equally vicious political alliances of his own.  He has celebrated at the grave of Baruch Goldstein, the fellow American colonist who massacred 29 Palestinians and wounded many more in the Ibrahimi Mosque in 1994.  He has openly called for the murder of Uri Avnery and other leftists and he hates homosexuals with the same vehemence. Marzel was on the scene soon after the shooting of Al Sharif and was then filmed shaking hands with Azaria, in friendship or on a job well done or a combination of both.       

The trial was stricken with lies and dubious witness statements. It was revealed that an ambulance orderly had kicked a knife lying on the ground closer towards Al Sharif and had tampered with other evidence. This is hardly the first time that a weapon has been deliberately placed close to the hand of a Palestinian killed by soldiers, police or settlers, so   an ambulance orderly fixing the evidence to help out the murderer of a Palestinian should not surprise. The ambulance was called for the slightly wounded Israeli soldier, not the seriously wounded Palestinians. This is not exceptional but typical. Many wounded Palestinians have died when they might have lived had an ambulance been summoned in time.  They die where they fall and are eventually dragged away without any respect for their human dignity.  

The witnesses for the defense included a retired pathologist who claimed that Al Sharif had already died when he was shot by Azaria.  His credentials were marred by the revelation that he had been involved in organ harvesting.  A surgeon also claimed that Al Sharif was already dead when shot in the head, but it turned out that he was a cardiologist, not a forensic medical specialist, whom the prosecution alleged had been fired from the Hadassah medical center for falsifying a document.  Another witness claimed that when Azaria shot Al Sharif in the head he didn’t shoot to kill.  

Part of the defense case rested on the argument that as other police and soldiers had killed Palestinians before in similar circumstances, why should their man be facing charges? And this of course is true, because Palestinians have been murdered by soldiers, police, members of the intelligence services and settlers going back to the birth of the state with few charges ever being laid, and with these always resulting in risible sentences and early release once the heat is off.    

Representatives of the IDF argued that Azaria’s deed represented a grave breach of the army’s values and standards when the opposite is true.  Azaria’s premeditated murder is perfectly consistent with the IDF’s behavior across occupied Palestine ever since 1948. Had Azaria not been filmed the army can be relied upon to have cooked up a story that the wounded man made some kind of movement indicating that he was still a threat that needed ‘neutralizing.’   Then Azaria would not have been charged, just as numerous others who have killed Palestinians in questionable circumstances have not been charged.  The problem was not the deed itself but the camera recording the deed.    

The brutality of the army has been on display on the West Bank, across Gaza and in Lebanon for decades.  It is not just the pilots or tank commanders who have shelled apartment blocks or fired white phosphorus shells into compounds where civilians are sheltering or have shot down dozens of young police on their graduation day but the individual soldiers who have casually shot Palestinian civilians, targeting even old people and small children.   

The army command structure has changed radically since Israel was driven out of Lebanon by Hezbollah in 2000 and was pushed back again in 2006.   The number of settler zealots appointed to senior positions has increased in the apparent belief that fighting for the Lord is more likely to be effective as a motive force on the battlefield than fighting for the land.  The ‘Dahiya strategy’ dominates, according to which it will not be just one suburb of Beirut that will be destroyed in the next war with Hezbollah but all Lebanon. This plan for the blanket destruction of civilians and civilian infrastructure has been played out in Gaza where it is not just the ‘terrorists’ but every Palestinian that members of Israel’s ‘defense forces’ are taught to regard as an enemy they should kill if necessary.  Thus the soldier who kills a Palestinian innocently crossing the street in Gaza or picking vegetables on the other side of the fence is most unlikely to be charged.            

The guilty verdict against Azaria reignited protests across the country. Sentence is expected to be delivered on January 15. The maximum term for manslaughter would be 20 years but a far lighter term is expected and if the past is any guide, Azaria could be expected to be released into some form of home detention once the furor has died down.    

Calls for a pardon came from Avigdor Lieberman, who campaigned for Azaria during the legal proceedings before being appointed Israel’s ‘defense’ minister, and from Naftali Bennett, the head of the Jewish Home Party. Netanyahu added his voice to theirs, describing the conviction as ‘a difficult and painful day, first and foremost for Elor, Israel’s soldiers [and] many citizens and parents of soldiers, among them me.’  How much more difficult, one imagines, would it be for the parents of the murdered man who have lost a son forever and know that the justice system will again not actually serve justice.    

The verdict of guilty was handed down as Israel was reacting with outrage to the resolution of the UN Security Council affirming the complete illegality of the occupation of the West Bank and East Jerusalem. Netanyahu responded by reprimanding the ambassadors of governments that voted for the resolution and by cutting Israel’s already paltry financial contribution to the UN, an organisation which it loathes.  Israel also directed its anger against Barrack Obama for allowing the resolution to pass by abstaining from the vote.  It is true that the abstention was a calculated slap in the face for Netanyahu, who never passed up an opportunity to humiliate Obama but is congenitally incapable of rolling with any punch.   Only recently the US had signed off in a colossal aid package to Israel of $38 billion but it seems that the mouth that bites the hand that feeds it never stops biting even when it is American.   Again the message sent forth is that it is not Israel that is out of step with the world: it is the world that is out of step with Israel and the world that has to change.   Far from reconciling itself with world opinion Israel deliberately and aggressively goes further in the opposite direction.    

The coming year will mark the anniversary of three important historical developments: the issuing of the Balfour Declaration (November 2, 1917); the Zionist onslaught on Egypt and Syria known as the ‘Six Day War’ (June 5-June 10); and within that time frame, the occupation, on June 7, of east Jerusalem.  These events will be the occasion for major celebrations by the Zionists and reflective mourning by the Palestinians.  Consistent with the theme that the West Bank and east Jerusalem were not occupied but ‘liberated’, the Israeli government’s propaganda campaign will center not on universal rights as proclaimed in countless laws, conventions and treaties, in this context specifically the rights of the Palestinian people, but on the fraudulent ‘right’ of the ‘Jewish people’ to hold, settle and, undoubtedly, eventually annex the territory seized during war in 1967. 

That in Israel and around the world ‘Jewish people’ are dissociating themselves from any such ‘right’ is immaterial to Naftali Bennett, Avigdor Lieberman, Benyamin Netanyahu, Baruch Marzel and their ideological cohorts. It should be remarked, however, that these people should not be regarded as some kind of ideological aberration. Zionism is and always was an extreme ideology and they are its natural outgrowth. The aspirations of the current generation of ‘extremists’ are no different in practice from the aspirations of the founding generation of ‘moderate’ Labor Zionists.

Going back as far as Theodor Herzl mainstream Zionism wanted nothing less than all of Palestine. No room was ever allowed for the Palestinians except in the mendacious statements of Zionist leaders. 1948 was merely a step along the way and from the beginning of the occupation of the West Bank and East Jerusalem in 1967, ‘moderate’ Zionists have colonized just as zealously as the ‘extremists.’ It was not just Menahim Begin and his ideological acolytes but the ‘moderates’ who debased every peace opportunity that came along. Thus while ‘moderate’ Zionists are railing at the ‘extremists’ they should know where to look in assigning responsibility for the present situation.

A recent poll carried out by the Israel Democracy Institute found that 65 per cent of Jewish Israelis support Elon Azaria’s claim of self-defense notwithstanding its rejection by the army and the court. Put this together with the fury at the passage of the UNSC resolution and with the complete rejection of a one-state or a two-state solution is it is very clear that the state of Israel is speeding towards a dead end, no matter how self-assured and confident it may appear right now.

– Jeremy Salt taught at the University of Melbourne, at Bosporus University in Istanbul and Bilkent University in Ankara for many years, specializing in the modern history of the Middle East. Among his recent publications is his 2008 book, The Unmaking of the Middle East. A History of Western Disorder in Arab Lands (University of California Press). He contributed this article to PalestineChronicle.com.

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