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Should the Hebron shooter be pardoned?

  • elor-azaria
It’s the same faces I film every time I cover right-wing demonstrations. And every time they refuse to be interviewed. They regard us journalists as part of the enemy, accuse us of being left-wingers and biased.
by PAULA SLIER | Mar 02, 2017

Several weeks ago I was accosted by one during a protest in Jerusalem. He kept screaming at me that the Israeli soldier, Elor Azaria, standing trial for killing a Palestinian in Hebron last March, was “one of us” and deserved to be set free. 

A short time later clashes broke out between these young Azaria supporters and police in front of the Israeli Defence Forces’ Tel Aviv headquarters as the 19-year-old army medic’s sentence was read out.

The same faces confronted me shouting: “We will not abandon Azaria,” and “A soldier who kills a terrorist cannot be a murderer.”

Last week Tuesday we were all back again to hear the verdict. Police lined up on one side outside the court; protesters opposite them, and journalists moving between the two.

After an hour, the familiar faces sighed a collective relief as the verdict of 18 months in prison was handed down - the prosecution had been pushing for three-to-five years. But still Azaria’s supporters were outraged that there was a sentencing in the first place.

Azaria was found guilty of firing a bullet into the head of Abed al-Fattah al-Sharrif, a 21-year-old Palestinian, as he lay wounded on the ground after stabbing an Israeli soldier. 

The defence argued that Azaria feared Sharif would attack again, either with a knife or a concealed explosive vest. The prosecution pointed out that Sharif was defenceless as he lay bleeding to death. A good soldier, they charged, does not fire at a helpless, unarmed person - even if he’s a terrorist.

The trial captivated the Israeli public and overnight catapulted Azaria into hero status of Israel’s Right. But, had his actions not been caught on camera by an NGO, it’s doubtful the trial would’ve made the impact it has, although the issues being  brought to the fore remain relevant and divisive. 

“I think it’s an absolute disgrace,” one protester told me, his frustration overcoming his usual reluctance to talk to journalists. “He should be getting a medal of honour, not a sentence. What was his big crime - killing a terrorist? That’s exactly what we expect of our soldiers and it’s immaterial whether the terrorist was injured or not.”

A religious demonstrator added: “In our Torah it is written that if someone comes to kill you, you kill him first.” 

The outpouring of sympathy for Azaria and the backlash from left-wing Israelis has many comparing the trial with that of OJ Simpson (a former American footballer acquitted of murdering his ex-wife Nicole Brown and her friend Ron Goldman) in the United States decades ago.

Just as the OJ trial highlighted the racial divisions and fault lines in American society, the mixed and intense public reaction to this case reveals how sharply split Israeli society is along deeply divided political and social lines.

Among the many debates stirred, is the question of what it means for soldiers facing similar situations in the future. For those who’ve strongly condemned Azaria’s actions, like Chief of Staff Gadi Eisenkot, the verdict proves soldiers have to adhere to the rules of engagement and chain of command.

But Azaria’s supporters accuse the defence establishment of abandoning one of their own, arguing it sends out a damning message that soldiers are alone on the battlefield, with the result that in future they’ll second guess their every move. 

Azaria is widely regarded as everyone’s son; every Israeli can identify with his story and imagine him - or herself - in his position.

 In the beginning Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu stood firmly behind the army’s decision to prosecute the so-called “Hebron shooter", but he later softened his stance and controversially phoned Azaria’s parents, reassuring them: “As a father of a soldier I understand your distress.”

Just as controversially, Netanyahu has said he supports a full pardon (which only President Reuven Rivlin or Brigadier Ronnie Noma, the IDF commander in the West Bank, can implement).

It’s a view echoed by several government ministers, among them the Education Minister and leader of the right-wing religious “The Jewish Home” party, Naftali Bennett. He argues that Azaria was sent to defend Israel and if he spends time in prison, “we will all pay the price”.

Construction Minister Yoav Galant has appealed: “The IDF has paid a heavy price for this incident and it created unnecessary rifts. What Azaria did was unacceptable, but we must recall that even a soldier who made a mistake, is our soldier… he should have been dealt with within his unit.” 

The debate triggers wider questions that are relevant in any crime-fighting situation. In South Africa, for example, where there is debate on how far police can go in confronting criminals, and when does the end justify the means, this case perhaps provides some food for thought.

In both situations, there is the rule of law that needs to be upheld - soldiers, policemen, ordinary citizens cannot act how they see fit - and this was the important message the army and defence establishment wanted carried forward.

But where it gets murky is when decisions need to be made on the spur of the moment and those making them are acting from adrenalin and fear while confronting an immediate danger.

Should Azaria be pardoned - and there's no guarantee whether that will happen - the debate will again be ignited. Central to it will be the message this imparts to anyone who finds him/herself in the same situation.

 

Paula Slier is the Middle East Bureau Chief of RT, the founder and CEO of NewshoundMedia and the inaugural winner of the Europcar Woman in Leadership award of the South African Absa Jewish Achievers.

2 Comments

  1. 2 Gary Selikow 02 Mar
    Elor Azaria dispatched a vicious terrorist monster that attacked innocent people with a knife.
    If he hadnt done that the terrorist would have been healed in an Israeli hospital and soon thereafter murdered more innocent Israelis.
    Elor Azaria deserves a medal and may all terrorists be dispatched that way.
  2. 1 David B 05 Mar
    What a thought provoking article.
    I don't believe there is a right or wrong - the sentence has been passed by an independent and learned judiciary according to the law, which is what we expect from our functioning democratic 'Home' country ( the only one in the Middle East)
    Thank you Paula, for initiating our thought processes, together with our combined conscience with this.

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