Conviction of Israeli soldier Elor Azaria is sadly the exception that proves the rule

The trial of Ezor Azaria has sparked huge protest among the Palestinian community

Palestinians hold posters as they gather in the street in thPalestinians in the West Bank town of Hebron on January 4, 2017, during the trial of Israeli soldier Elor Azaria

Friday, January 6, 2017

This week an Israeli court convicted an IDF soldier of manslaughter. Elor Azaria shot in the head, at point-blank range, a wounded and prostate Palestinian named Abd Fatah al-Sharif back in March 2016.

As Azaria was convicted a large crowd gathered outside to protest the verdict, chanting “the people of Israel support and salute this hero”. The evidence suggests the claims of widespread public support for Azaria were not exaggerated.

An opinion poll conducted by the Israel Democracy Institute showed that 65% of Israelis supported Azaria’s act. More alarmingly, within the 18-24 year old bracket, support ran at 84%. Benjamin Netanyahu has reflected this support and now called for a full pardon for Azaria.

With such overwhelming popular support, findings like these cast doubt that the conviction of Azaria might represent a watershed moment in the conduct of the IDF towards Palestinians.

Azaria is the first IDF soldier on operational duty to be convicted of manslaughter in 11 years. Yesh Din, an Israeli human rights organisation, reports that the IDF has investigated 262 Palestinian deaths at the hands of Israeli soldiers since 2000. Only 17 cases have resulted in indictments. An Amnesty report published in 2015 stated Israel’s state-run investigation systems "have long served to perpetuate impunity for unlawful killings of Palestinians by Israeli military and police forces”.

What was unusual in this case was that the incident was captured on film by the Israeli human rights organisation  B’Tselem, and released immediately to a chorus of international condemnation. The footage is chilling.

Al-Sharif had attacked a soldier with a knife at a checkpoint and is clearly seen lying wounded and unmoving on the ground. Azaria is seen approaching him and proceeds to shoot him at point blank range. But perhaps more disturbingly after he is shot dead, Azaria’s IDF colleagues and Israeli settler bystanders show no reaction to the killing and stroll pass the dead body. The footage speaks clearly of a dehumanising culture in which Al-Sharif no longer possesses basic rights. It opens a window to the experiences of Palestinians largely ignored by the world when not captured on film as in this case. 

Such a culture does not emerge in a vacuum. Human Rights Watch recently accused senior Israeli officials, including religious figures, of backing an illegal shoot-to-kill policy. The statement claimed “Some senior Israeli officials have been encouraging Israeli soldiers and police to kill Palestinians they suspect of attacking Israelis, even when they are no longer a threat.”

Human Rights Watch cites an example in October 2015 when Israeli police fatally shot a 16-year-old Palestinian suspected of carrying out a stabbing attack. The Jerusalem police district commander told reporters: “Everyone who stabs Jews or harms innocent people should be killed”. There is support from religious authorities too - Israel’s chief Sephardic rabbi stated in a 2016 sermon that the Bible authorises a shoot-to-kill policy.

It is in this context that the indictment of Azaria must be understood. Any confidence that his indictment suggests a shift in policy in how the IDF polices the actions of its soldiers would appear misplaced whilst there exists a political culture with huge public support that encourages the illegal killing of Palestinians. Whilst it is true that some prominent Israeli political figures such as Ehud Barak have expressed support for the indictment of Azaria, those who have condemned him have framed him as a bad apple rather than viewing his act within the broader context of a systematic disregard for international law and human rights. Moreover, Azaria has received significant support from prominent members of the Israeli government since the case emerged, with education minister Naftali Bennett and others calling for a full pardon from the very beginning.

Only external political pressure will change this dynamic. It is notable that this indictment came after the UN had expressed public disapproval and called for action. Of central importance is the fact that the killing of Al-Sharif comes in the wider context of Israel’s continuing occupation. The UN Security Council resolution on December 23 condemned the occupation and Israel’s policy of illegal settlement-building, reflecting the international consensus on these issues. Israel’s reaction amounted to an effective declaration of diplomatic war on all those who had supported the resolution (including the UK), and spoke to a continuing refusal on the part of Israel to pay heed to words of condemnation.

The same Amnesty report published in 2015 concluded that “wilful killings of Palestinians in the occupied Palestinian territories are grave breaches of the 4th Geneva convention – over which all states can exercise universal jurisdiction”. In other words, all governments have responsibilities under international law to address human rights abuses conducted by other states. 

If the international community is serious about ending the occupation and preventing future such killings, then it is actions, not words that are required to hold Israel to account.

Ben Jamal is the Director of the Palestine Solidarity Campaign, the largest UK civil society organisation dedicated to securing Palestinian human rights.

The views expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect those of talkRADIO.