Hebron verdict widens growing chasm in Israeli society

Benjamin Netanyahu sides with those accusing army commanders of dereliction of duty towards a lone soldier

January 05, 2017 14:38

The reading of the verdict on Wednesday morning in Room A of the IDF General Command’s military courthouse in Tel Aviv was an excruciating affair. Colonel Maya Heller, president of the court, spent nearly three hours reading the decision she had reached with her two colleagues in the case of Sergeant Elor Azaria. 

From the outset, it was clear that the judges had not accepted any of the claims of the defence. They had argued that on March 24, 2016, when Sgt Azaria had shot a motionless and critically wounded Palestinian assailant in Hebron, he was acting in self-defence and in the belief that Abdel Fatah al-Sharif, who 11 minutes earlier had tried to stab his fellow soldiers, had also been carrying a bomb. It was, the colonel said, an action committed “calmly, without urgency and with calculation”. 

The judges accepted the testimony of one of Sgt Azaria’s friends, who had told the court the accused had said that Al-Sharif “deserves to die”. 

The court unanimously found Sgt Azaria guilty of manslaughter and tried very hard to make it clear, not just to the defendant, but to the entire Israeli public, why its verdict was so damningly thorough.

But that will not stop the controversy that has raged since footage of Sgt Azaria shooting the prone Al-Sharif at point-blank rage emerged, nor lessened the polarisation in Israeli society.

While the IDF’s General Command, led by Chief of Staff Gadi Eizenkot, has been trying hard over the last nine months to repudiate Sgt Azaria’s actions, it has faced a growing section of the Israeli public — including senior politicians — some of them cabinet ministers, who describe the soldier as a hero and accused the army of “abandoning him on the battlefield”. 

The verdict has not changed anyone’s mind. Education Minister Naftali Bennett said: “Today a soldier who killed a terrorist who deserved to die, who tried to slaughter [another] soldier, was placed in shackles and convicted as a criminal”. 

Culture Minister Miri Regev called Sgt Azaria “a soldier who is part of all of us”. Both ministers, as well as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, joined a growing chorus calling for his pardon. That may yet happen, but only after the sentencing and if the IDF’s military attorney-general, who put Sgt Azaria on trial, recommends such a move to President Reuven Rivlin, who ultimately will have the last word. 

But Sgt Azaria’s fate and the length of time he is to serve in prison is no longer the main issue. 

The growing chasm within the Israeli public, played out in the Knesset, on the streets and on social media, is a strange one. On the one side are those who usually see themselves as the most supportive of the IDF, now fiercely accusing its commanders of dereliction of duty towards a lone soldier. On the other, are the human-rights NGOs like B’tselem and Breaking the Silence, who usually accuse the IDF of covering-up allegations of wrongdoing in the West Bank, who feel vindicated by the military court’s verdict. It is unclear how this split in society will play out, but as the courtroom finally begin to clear, bodyguards moved in to protect the judges and prosecutors — IDF officers under threat from the people they are sworn to protect.

January 05, 2017 14:38

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