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The Israeli army tried to redeem itself with Elor Azaria's trial. It failed

The army turned the Israeli soldier's trial into a showcase, but the reaction to the verdict proved just how wrong it was

An hour after a military court in Tel Aviv ruled that Elor Azaria, the Israeli soldier who shot dead Abdel Fatah al-Sharif in Hebron nine months ago, was guilty of manslaughter, I went down to a falafel shop near my office. The vendor and a customer were having a chat about the verdict.

The Israeli army's Chief of Staff Gadi Eizenkot won this battle - but he seems to have lost the war on the Israeli soul

"What would you have done if you were Elor's mother," asked the vendor.

"I would have killed his commander," answered the woman.

This conversation sums up the feeling of many Israelis regarding this trial: they viewed Azaria as one of them, as the "people's son", so all those who tried to hurt him, from ex-defence minister Moshe Ya'alon to Chief of Staff Gadi Eizenkot, down to the platoon commander who testified against Azaria, were guilty of persecution and should be treated as enemies, no less - or maybe even more - than al-Sharif himself. 

In this atmosphere, it was only natural that dozens of protestors who gathered outside the court shouted angrily "Gadi (Eizenkot), Gadi, beware, Rabin is waiting for a friend". In Hebrew, these words do not only rhyme, they sent a clear message that Israel's chief of staff, once a man beyond any political dispute, is targeted as Yitzhak Rabin was in the dark days before his assassination in 1995.

Right wing supporters protest outside the defence ministry in Tel Aviv on 4 January 2017, in support of Azaria, as they wait for his verdict (AFP)
The politicians' reactions followed suit. And this time it was not only Naftali Bennett, education minister and head of the right-wing Jewish Home party. It was Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu himself who described the verdict as "a hard day for everyone, above all to Elor and his family" and called for Azaria to be granted a pardon. 

Netanyahu did not join the protestors outside the court, but his message was similar: while the court found out that Azaria killed al-Sharif because, according to Azaria, "he deserved to die", Israel's prime minister publically declared that this same killer deserves to be free. According to Netanyahu, the punishment for killing a wounded Palestinian lying on the ground, "without any justification" as the court ruled, should be zero days in prison.

Caught on film 

In the eyes of many Palestinians, the incident in Hebron was in no way extraordinary. It resembles dozens, if not hundreds, of similar cases in which Palestinian civilians were shot dead by soldiers while not posing any threat to them anymore. The sole difference was that the killing of al-Sharif was documented by the camera of Imad Abu Shamsia, a resident of Hebron and a volunteer for B'tselem human rights organisation. 

In the eyes of many Palestinians, the incident in Hebron was in no way extraordinary - resembles dozens, if not hundreds, of similar cases in which Palestinian civilians were shot dead by soldiers

Without this documentation, it is probable that al-Sharif's death would not have been investigated and Azaria would have been a free man now. The video clip, broadcast all over the world, forced the military prosecution to act.

Yet it seems that there was another motive behind the Israeli army's insistence on bringing Azaria to court: to turn his trial into a showcase. Ya'alon and Eizenkot were probably genuinely fearing that they were losing control over their own army, that it has been "hijacked" by right-wing ideology, closely related to the settler movement. 

VIDEO: Israeli soldier 'executes' injured Palestinian after stab attack 

This assimilation of the army with right-wing causes is a result of a double-edged process. On the one hand, the continuous presence of the army in the West Bank, mainly in defence of the settlements. On the other hand, the growing numbers of field officers of national-religious background. While their share in the population is approximately 10 percent, their share among graduates of the officers' academy is more than 30 percent.

Yet the higher echelons of the army remain largely secular. So when Ofer Winter, a graduate of national-religious schools and the commander of Giv'ati Brigade, encouraged his soldiers before going into Gaza during operation Defensive Edge in 2014 to fight "the enemy who curses" God's name, this was viewed as a challenge to the secular character of the Israeli army. Ya'alon and Eizenkot began a slow, but systematic effort to reduce the influence of the settlers and their supporters in the army. 

Rajaa and Yousri, Abdul Fatah al-Sharif's parents, hold his portrait as they head out into the streets of Hebron on 4 January 2017 after watching the verdict of the Azaria's trial on television (AFP)
Eizenkot, for example, pushed for larger involvement of women in the army, a process seen as highly controversial among the national-religious rabbis. The killing in Hebron, in which local settlers played a major part in encouraging Azaria to shoot, may have seemed to Eizenkot and Ya'alon as an opportunity to bring back the army back to its secular tracks and enforce its norms. 

But Ya'alon and Eizenkot soon found out that they are somehow out of touch with the current mood in Israeli society. After 50 years of occupation and of treatment of Palestinians as enemies, most Israelis found it hard to swallow that a soldier is indicted for killing a Palestinian, whether he is armed or not.

Showcase trial

The decision to put Azaria on trial was sharply criticised by right-wing politicians, and even more so in the social media. Ya'alon eventually had to quit his post as defence minister because of mounting opposition within his own Likud party. 

Sixty percent of Israelis oppose the verdict and 75 percent think that Azaria should be pardoned and released

The line of defence chosen by Azaria's lawyers helped Eizenkot to win this judicial battle. He could have claimed that the "commander's spirit" in the army was that any Palestinian responsible for an attack on Israelis or even suspected of such an attack must be killed. Internal Security Minister Gilad Ardan even declared that “every terrorist should know that he will not survive the attack he is about to commit".

In this respect, in killing al-Sharif, Azaria could have said that he was only doing what was expected of him. Such a line of defence would have embarrassed the Israeli army, so proud to proclaim itself "the most moral army in the world".  

Yet contrary to all visual and verbal evidence, Azaria preferred to claim that he killed al-Sharif out of self-defence, because he felt threatened and feared that al-Sharif carried explosives on his body. These were pure lies. So the military court had an easy task in ruling that Azaria's actions "destabilised the moral force" of the Israeli army and in convicting him of manslaughter. 

Israeli Chief of Staff General Gadi Eizenkot lays a wreath during a memorial ceremony marking the tenth anniversary of the 2006 war between Israel and Lebanon's Hezbollah movement in July 2016 (AFP)
Eizenkot won this battle. It was not difficult to do when faced with a defendant coming from a working-class Mizrahi family (Jews of Arab origin) from a provincial town. Not by chance, the last Israeli soldier to be convicted of manslaughter was of Bedouin origin. But he seems to have lost the war on the Israeli soul.

According to a poll conducted after the ruling, 60 percent of Israelis oppose the verdict and 75 percent think that Azaria should be pardoned and released. If Eizenkot thought that by prosecuting Azaria, he could cancel the role of the army as the safeguard of Israeli occupation in the West Bank, he was proved wrong. 

- Meron Rapoport is an Israeli journalist and writer, winner of the Napoli International Prize for Journalism for an inquiry about the stealing of olive trees from their Palestinian owners. He is ex-head of the news department at Haaretz, and now an independent journalist.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.

Photo: Israeli soldier Elor Azaria who was caught on video shooting a wounded Palestinian (AFP)

This article is available in French on Middle East Eye French edition.

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