The recent conviction of Israeli soldier Elor Azaria for executing a Palestinian man named Abdul Fattah Sharif as he lay motionless on the ground was entirely predictable. It’s predictability, however, is not due to any honour on the part of the Israeli military or judicial system but solely because this murder was captured on video by a human rights organisation documenting Israel’s abuses.
For years, Israel has propagated the myth that it has a superior army, with its soldiers behaving ethically and morally in its occupation. Yet, the reality of 50 years of military rule has proven the opposite — that Israel has acted with impunity towards Palestinians, killing, maiming and wounding them and stealing and destroying their land and homes at will. The statistics bear witness: Since 2003, Israeli military police opened criminal investigations into the killing of 179 Palestinians though its army killed more than 5,000 Palestinians during that time. Of those investigations, the army issued indictments on only 16 cases, none of them on murder charges.
It should be recalled that this is the same army that found that it acted “legally” when it killed four young boys playing football on a Gaza beach after the army fired a missile at the boys. It is the same army that found it acted “legally” when it ran over American peace activist Rachel Corrie as she tried to stop a bulldozer from destroying a Palestinian home in Rafah.
But given that Sharif’s execution was caught on tape, the Israeli army had no choice but to announce that it would prosecute his murderer. However, faced with outcry by the Israeli public, the murder charges were later dropped to manslaughter charges (even though the murder took place a full 11 minutes after Sharif laid motionless on the ground) with the soldier alleging that he acted in “self-defence”. Thousands of Israelis signed petitions calling for Azaria’s release and labelling him a “hero” while supporters held rallies in support. But of course Azaria’s conviction is necessary to maintain the fiction that Israel holds its soldiers accountable.
And just as predictable as his conviction, the outcry for his conviction is similarly predictable. Israeli politicians including those from the so-called “left” political parties called for Azaria’s pardoning, with even the Israeli prime minister voicing his support for Azaria’s release. Netanyahu claimed that it was a “difficult day” for Israelis to hear of Azaria’s conviction; yes, a “difficult day” to see that a murderer who executes a Palestinian in cold blood is held to account. While public opinion polls indicate that more than two-thirds of the Israeli public believe that he should be pardoned, news media was quick to describe this conviction as tearing Israel apart. The truth, however, is the opposite: Israel’s public and politicians are firmly behind killing Palestinians and not being held to account.
And here is where the problem rests: For 50 years, Israel has acted with complete impunity — whether in stealing Palestinian land, in building illegal Israeli colonies, in maintaining a brutal military occupation, in denying freedom to millions of Palestinians, or in killing, maiming or wounding Palestinians — that the idea that they would ever be held to account is foreign, hence the outcry. Of course, Israel is not unique in this regard — other human rights violators make the same claims of moral superiority while refusing to submit to international law.
For example, the apartheid South Africa regime similarly proclaimed that only it could stand in judgement of apartheid South Africa because the rest of the world simply “did not understand” what it meant to maintain a racist apartheid regime. So too, Israel makes the same claims decrying the world for attempting to impose any laws on it. This is not simply about one rotten soldier spoiling the name of the Israeli army, but of the Israeli army that is rotten to its core. And this, of course, is why the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement is so important, for it finally holds Israel to account for violating international law and makes Israel and Israelis recognise that they cannot continue to behave in flagrant violation of international law and of Palestinian rights.
It may be the case that Azaria will not be pardoned, but he will likely not serve much time in prison for murdering Sharif.
What is clear, however, is that he will continue to be viewed as a hero by a society that is so blinded by its own power that it cannot recognise that executions are not considered acceptable by the world community, no matter what the circumstances.
Diana Buttu is a Ramallah-based analyst, former adviser to Palestine Liberation Organisation chairman Mahmoud Abbas and Palestinian negotiators and policy adviser to Al Shabaka: The Palestinian Policy Network.