An Israeli military court on Wednesday convicted the soldier Elor Azaria for executing a disarmed Palestinian attacker last March, a verdict that promises to stir more controversy as the country contends with widening divisions over the rule of law and the use of lethal force in occupied territories.
The debate over the case has split Israeli society in two. On one side are old-guard Israelis who said Azaria committed a grave offense in killing a wounded attacker who posed no threat at the time. On the other side is a rising hard-right faction who argued that soldiers in the occupied Palestinian territories needed unconditional support from Israeli leaders.
After the verdict came down, Israeli politicians, like hard-right Education Minister Naftali Bennett, said Azaria should be immediately pardoned. Hours later, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu jumped into the fray, also calling for the soldier’s pardon, no doubt trying to shore up his powerful right flank and fend off criticism from the likes of political rivals like Bennett.
For now the calls for a pardon are purely in the realm of politics — the Israeli president is the only person who can pardon Azaria.
The shooting happened last March, when Abdel Fattah al-Sharif, a Palestinian from Hebron, stabbed a soldier. A soldier shot and injured Al-Sharif, and video footage shows him subdued on the floor as Israeli soldiers mill about. About 10 minutes after the stabbing incident, Azaria can be seen cocking his weapon and calmly shooting an unarmed Al-Sharif in the head. It was an incident occupation critics called an example of Israel’s “shoot to kill” policy when dealing with Palestinian attackers, and its footage immediately sparked outrage throughout the small country and much of the region.
The military judges rejected the contradictory defense arguments that Azaria thought he was in danger and that the attacker was dead at the time of the killing. The military indicted Azaria for manslaughter, and he could face up to 20 years in prison, though it’s unlikely he will get the maximum time.
“This is not a happy day for us. We would have preferred that this didn’t happen. But the deed was done, and the offense was severe,” Nadav Weissman, a military prosecutor, told journalists.
Azaria’s verdict looks to be the latest symbol of Israel’s strengthening right-wing movement. The trial and conviction of Azaria instantly sparked outrage among some of the movement’s most prominent leaders, who say Azaria should be supported as a soldier trying to protect Israel from attacks. Thousands of Israelis seemingly agreed, rallying behind Azaria throughout the trial, and clashing with police outside the military court in Jaffa upon hearing the verdict. A September poll by the Israel Democracy Institute showed that 47 percent of Israelis support killing Palestinian attackers on the spot, even if they do not pose a threat.
Yohanan Plesner, the president of the Israel Democracy Institute, said that the spate of Palestinian stabbing attacks against Israelis since 2015 has “created a sense of fear and anger among Israelis, and therefore the climate of identification with the basic moral code of the IDF has been eroded.” The trend was worrying, he said, but he expected support for such actions to go down as militant attacks decrease.
In contrast to the Israeli far-right, figures like former Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon castigated the soldier’s actions. “We don’t just shoot at people,” Yaalon said last week. He was pushed out of his defense post last year by Netanyahu after giving a speech criticizing an “extremist minority” trying to shift Israeli society in favor of “trigger-happy” soldiers who act out of “revenge.” Yaalon was replaced by Avigdor Lieberman, who supported Azaria but has since tempered his remarks.
The conviction of a soldier for manslaughter is a rare occurrence. Since 2000, the military has investigated 262 cases of soldiers killing Palestinians and foreign nationals. But until today, only one Israeli soldier had been convicted of the offense, according to Yesh Din, an Israeli human rights group.
It is Israeli military policy to automatically open an inquiry into any case in which a Palestinian was killed outside of a combat situation. In 2015, 99 Palestinians were killed by the Israeli army in the West Bank, according to B’Tselem. But only 21 investigation files were opened that year. Gilad Grossman, the spokesman for Yesh Din, said that number calls into question the Israeli military’s definition of what a “combat” situation is, since many of the incidents involved an attempted stabbing, not an active war zone.
Grossman said the army “doesn’t really follow through with its own code to investigate the deaths of Palestinians.”
In a statement, Adalah, The Legal Center for Arab Minority Rights, said the Israeli army routinely turns “a blind eye to the killings of Palestinian civilians by soldiers and police officers” and that the conviction of Azaria is the “exception to the rule.”
Alex Kane is a journalist who focuses on Israel/Palestine and civil liberties.