Fury at Azaria verdict is Israel’s Trump moment

Israel/Palestine
on 9 Comments

The United Kingdom has Brexit. The United States, an incoming president Trump. And Israel now has Elor Azaria. It may not have the same ring, but ultimately the turning point could prove as decisive.

Two fallacious narratives have greeted the army medic’s manslaughter conviction last week, after he was filmed firing a bullet into the head of a wounded and helpless Palestinian, 21-year-old Abdel Fattah Al Sharif.

The first says Azaria is a rotten apple, a soldier who lost his moral bearings last March under the pressure of serving in Hebron. The second – popular among liberals in Israel – claims the conviction proves the strength of Israel’s rule of law. Even a transgressing soldier will be held accountable by the world’s “most moral army”.

In truth, however, the popular reaction to the military court’s decision was far more telling than the decision itself.

Only massed ranks of riot police saved the three judges from a lynching by crowds outside. The army top brass have been issued bodyguards. Demands to overrule the court and pardon Azaria are thunderous – and they are being led by prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Azaria is no rogue soldier. He is “everyone’s child”, according to much of the public. The unexceptional nature of his act is vouched for by the complete indifference of his colleagues as Azaria pulled the trigger. Polls show overwhelming support – 84 per cent – for Azaria among 18- to 24-year-olds, the age of ­Israel’s conscript army.

The trial, meanwhile, reflected not the law’s sanctity – it is 12 years since the last soldier, a Bedouin, was convicted of manslaughter. It revealed only the growing pressures on Israel. Cameras in phones are making it harder to cover up soldiers’ crimes. By prosecuting Azaria in a case where the filmed evidence was unequivocal, Israel hopes to ward off war crimes investigations by the International Criminal Court.

As Israeli columnist Nahum Barnea noted, Azaria’s defence team also erred. Riding a wave of populist indignation, they accused Azaria’s superiors of lying and bullying. Prosecutors had already reduced a murder charge to manslaughter. The court would probably have settled for convicting a repentant Azaria of misusing a firearm. But given the defence’s framing of the case, the judges had to choose: side with the soldier or the army.

Like Brexit and Trump, Azaria’s trial exposed not only a deep social fissure, but also a moment of transition. Those who see a virtuous system punishing a rotten apple are now outnumbered by those who see a rotten system victimising a hero.

Polls show the Israeli public’s faith plummeting in most institutions, from the courts to the media, which are seen, however wrongly, as dominated by the “extreme left”. Only the army is still widely revered.

That is in part because so many Israeli parents must entrust their sons and daughters to it. To doubt the army would be to question the foundational logic of “Fortress Israel”: that the army is all that prevents Palestinian “barbarians” such as Sharif from storming the gates.

But also, unlike those increasingly despised institutions, the army has rapidly adapted and conformed to the wider changes in Israeli society.

Rather than settlers, we should speak of “settlerism”. There are far more settlers than the 600,000 who live in the settlements. Naftali Bennett, leader of the settlers’ Jewish Home Party and education minister, lives in Ranana, a city in Israel, not a settlement.

Settlerism is an ideology, one that believes Jews are a “chosen people” whose Biblical rights to the Promised Land trump those of non-Jews such as Palestinans. Polls show 70 per cent of Israeli Jews think they are chosen by God.

The settlers have taken over the army, both demographically and ideologically. They now dominate its officer corps and they direct policy on the ground.

Azaria’s testimony showed how deep this attachment now runs. His company, including his commanders, often spent their free time at the home of Baruch Marzel, a leader of Kach, a group banned in the 1990s for its genocidal anti-Arab platform. Azaria described Marzel and Hebron’s settlers as like a “family” to the soldiers.

By their very nature, occupying armies are brutally repressive. For decades the army command has given its soldier free rein against Palestinians. But as settler numbers have grown, the army’s image of itself has changed too.

It has metamorphosed from a citizens’ army defending the settlements to a settler militia. The middle ranks now dictate the army’s ethos, not the top brass, as ousted defence minister Moshe Yaalon discovered last year when he tried to stand against the swelling tide.

This new army is no longer even minimally restrained by concerns about the army’s “moral” image or threats of international war crimes investigations. It cares little what the world thinks, much like the new breed of politicians who have thrown their support behind Azaria.

The soldier’s trial, far from proof of the rule of law, was the last gasp of a dying order. His sentence, due in the next few days, is likely to be lenient to appease the public. If the conviction is nullified by a pardon, the settlers’ victory will be complete.

A version of this article first appeared in the National, Abu Dhabi.

About Jonathan Cook

Jonathan Cook won the Martha Gellhorn Special Prize for Journalism. His latest books are “Israel and the Clash of Civilisations: Iraq, Iran and the Plan to Remake the Middle East” (Pluto Press) and “Disappearing Palestine: Israel’s Experiments in Human Despair” (Zed Books). His new website is jonathan-cook.net.

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9 Responses

  1. eljay
    January 11, 2017, 9:56 am

    … Polls show overwhelming support – 84 per cent – for Azaria among 18- to 24-year-olds, the age of ­Israel’s conscript army. …

    That’s an awful lot of supremacist hypocrites – people who would not have non-Jewish soldiers do unto a Jewish criminal what they believe a Jewish soldier was entitled to do to a non-Jewish criminal.

    … Settlerism is an ideology, one that believes Jews are a “chosen people” whose Biblical rights to the Promised Land trump those of non-Jews such as Palestinans. …

    Settlerism sounds a lot like Zionism.

    • Kay24
      January 11, 2017, 9:20 pm

      I agree. No God will condone theft of lands, water, and trees, then be okay with bulldozing homes, and making men, women and children, homeless. They can quote all the old books from the stone age, and it will still not be acceptable by civilized international laws.

  2. broadside
    January 11, 2017, 12:09 pm

    Excellent piece, as usual by Cook.

    “Those who see a virtuous system punishing a rotten apple are now outnumbered by those who see a rotten system victimising a hero.”

    Exactly.

    “But as settler numbers have grown, the army’s image of itself has changed too. It has metamorphosed from a citizens’ army defending the settlements to a settler militia. The middle ranks now dictate the army’s ethos, not the top brass, as ousted defence minister Moshe Yaalon discovered last year when he tried to stand against the swelling tide.”

    Exactly.

    ‘This new army is no longer even minimally restrained by concerns about the army’s “moral” image or threats of international war crimes investigations. It cares little what the world thinks, much like the new breed of politicians who have thrown their support behind Azaria. The soldier’s trial, far from proof of the rule of law, was the last gasp of a dying order.’

    Says it all.

  3. Citizen
    January 11, 2017, 9:02 pm

    When will there be a cable channel special or series on this subject? Or even one on PBS…. Can’t we even get that for our latest $38 billion dollar gift to this rogue state?

  4. Dan Walsh
    January 12, 2017, 10:25 am

    @ Citizen…that 38 billion, plus all the other treasure that the US government has transferred to Israel since 1948 cannot accurately be described as “aid”: It is tribute, in its purest form.

    Aid goes to those who cannot help themselves and is used, ideally, as a short-term stimulus to help them begin to help themselves. Israel, which PM Netanyahu is forever touting as an ecomomic miracle and model has a GDP/average income on a par with France and is not in need of US “aid”.

    Tribute, on the other hand, is paid to ward off injury or to curry favor. It is paid by vassals to lords. It has no termination date.

    See the diff?

    MW should abandon the term “aid” when discussing the transfer of wealth from the US to Israel and substitute “tribute” in every case.

    • Sibiriak
      January 12, 2017, 11:24 am

      What do you call that very large portion of the “aid” for Israel that goes straight to into the hands of U.S. corporations?

      After months of negotiating, the United States and Israel have signed a huge, $38 billion deal for military aid to the Jewish state — with some changes from previous pacts between the countries.

      The 10-year agreement is the largest in U.S. history, with a significant portion of the money expected to be used to upgrade Israel’s air force to Lockheed Martin’s F-35 fighter aircraft.

      But while the actual memorandum of understanding hasn’t been officially released by either country, it has a number of conditions that are different from previous U.S.-Israel aid deals.

      Most importantly, it’s structured so that more Israeli defense spending goes to U.S. companies. Israel’s long-standing special arrangement for funds from the United States previously allowed Israel to spend 26 percent of the money in Israel — on Israeli-made defense products. But that provision is being phased out over the first five years of the deal. [emphasis added]

      http://www.cnbc.com/2016/09/15/big-us-military-aid-package-to-israel-has-strings-attached.html

      • Keith
        January 12, 2017, 5:30 pm

        SIBIRIAK- “What do you call that very large portion of the “aid” for Israel that goes straight to into the hands of U.S. corporations?”

        I would call it a subsidy to the armaments industry. This is one reason why support for Israel is strong among those corporations which benefit from this ongoing arrangement.

  5. oldgeezer
    January 12, 2017, 11:21 pm

    This story deserves it’s own section

    It is emblamatic of how low zionist and Israeli culture has become.

    Rank racists.

    Whether jon66, jon s, dohbaker, mikhael, catalan, yonah, especially hophmi, or any other vocal supporter of the murderous rogue state of Israelthey are not worth salvaging.

    The majority just don’t care and while that may be a major character flaw it doesn’t put them in the same grouping.

    The nuremburg laws would be wiped off the books if these lowlives ruled. The laughable part being they would justify the death of their own ancestors.

    One can only hope the inmates stop running the asylum Israel has become. Well .. the asylum it is. Maybe it always was.

  6. Ossinev
    January 13, 2017, 6:53 am

    “The settlers have taken over the army, both demographically and ideologically. They now dominate its officer corps and they direct policy on the ground”

    This has distinct echoes of the rapid downward spiral in Germany in the late 1920`s. The likes of Yaalon and Barak have realised this and have been distancing themselves but the Yahoo and his “team” have nowhere to go other than further to the extreme right in their pursuit of the future and more overtly Fascist PM = Naftali Bennett.So called “centrists” such as Lapid and those supposedly representing the”left” in Israeli politics such as Isaac Herzog , who have no choice but to be seen to be sympathetic to the settlers and the likes of Azaria if they are to have any chance of retaining votes , are similarly caught up in the relentless drift to the extreme right.

    The net result is that there no longer any “centre” “left” in Israeli politics. The Lapids/Herzogs
    are simply default shoe ins for what was once the traditional ” right wing” Likud. See Jonathan Cook`s piece from 2013 on the subject:
    http://www.jonathan-cook.net/2013-01-28/israels-left-turn-to-the-far-right/

    Sooner or later a huge number of decent moral Jewish Israelis are going to have a serious OMG moment , pack their bags and get out of what is rapidly becoming an extremist hell hole – to all intents and purposes a Zionist version of an ideological “caliphate”.

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