The episode since Israeli medic-soldier and French citizen Elor Azarya was filmed summarily executing Abd Al-Fattah Al-Sharif has been a sobering reminder of the Israeli right-wing’s total and long-standing dominance over the Zionist left, manifesting into a display unseen since the last war on Gaza, when anti-war protesters were beaten in the streets.
On March 24, Azarya was caught on film summarily executing a wounded, incapacitated Palestinian man as he lay on the ground in the occupied West Bank city of Hebron.
As the video went viral, the Israeli public rallied around Azarya. A petition for his release gained 50,000 signatures in a few days, and a poll revealed that 82% of Israelis support the execution. Across the country, Israelis held public events including town halls and streets demonstrations, culminating with a rally for Azarya in Tel Aviv’s Rabin Square on April 19 that drew what I estimate to be at least 5,000 supporters. From the stage, the square was full as far as the eye could see.
Amid an atmosphere that was overtly celebratory, the mood became somber at times, as if Azarya was a martyr or had been captured by a rival armed group. But his captors were his own government, and the people demanded his release.
Onstage, Elor’s mother, Oshra Azarya, who called to kill Palestinian mothers and children on Facebook, broke down when she spoke of her son’s “angel eyes.”
For his part, Charlie Azarya, the soldier’s father, couldn’t muster much beyond nationalistic statements and chants. “We are a strong people! We will not let anyone wipe us out! The Jewish people live! The Jewish people live!”
“We will win and we will fuck the Arabs! Ole ole ole!” the crowd chanted back.
The celebration was a release of the anger from the betrayal they felt from politicians across the board who explicitly instructed soldiers, police and civilians to shoot-to-kill on-the-spot – exactly what Azarya had done.
As the event concluded, around 80 Israeli men and boys of army age, some wearing Israeli flags as capes, rose from one knee and jumped while chanting: “Elor, HaMelech Yisrael! Chai chai, vekayam!” (Elor, the King of Israel lives!)
It is a chant of ultimate respect that has religious significance. Traditionally, the chant is “David HaMelech Yisrael…”, refers to the messianic figure whose slaying and beheading of the Philistine giant Goliath crowned him the King of Israel. According to Orthodox Judaism, the messiah will descend from the bloodline of David. And Elor Azarya, for coldly executing a defenseless man, was David’s heir.
Originally named Kings of Israel Square, Israel’s largest public venue was renamed Rabin Square after Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin was assassinated there in 1995. But Kings of Israel Square is a much more fitting name – the political forces responsible for Rabin’s assassination were the victors, and they returned to celebrate and crown their king-du-jour, Elor Azarya.
Inciter-in-chief of Rabin’s murder was none other than Benjamin Netanyahu, who is now Israel’s second longest-serving prime minister. Then a member of the opposition, Yael Aronoff writes in The Political Psychology of Israeli Prime Ministers, Netanyahu led a mock funeral for Rabin featuring a casket and hangman’s noose, and participants chanted “Death to Rabin!” When security services informed Netanyahu of plots to assassinate Rabin, he poured gas on the fire. At an anti-Oslo rally in Jerusalem, images were seen depicting Rabin in a Nazi SS uniform, and Netanyahu addressed the crowd next to a poster reading “Death to Rabin!”
Netanyahu’s theatrics purposefully enflamed the right-wing’s anger at Rabin for his role in the Oslo Accords, which established the quisling Palestinian Authority, what they perceived as a rollback of the state’s sovereignty and a threat to Jews.
According to Orthodox Judiasm, the god Yahweh has promised Eretz Yisrael (the biblical Land of Israel) to the Jewish people. The first Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi of Palestine Rabbi Avraham Yitzhak HaKohen Kook developed a doctrine that settling the land of Palestine would bring redemption – meaning the establishment of a religious kingdom. Followers of his son, Rabbi Zvi Yehuda Kook, established Gush Emunim (Bloc of the Faithful), the political settler movement.
It was within this national-religious doctrine that Yigal Amir, a right-wing law student, used a loophole in religious law to justify the murder of Rabin. Derived from the talmudic dictum, “Whoever comes to kill you, kill him first”, Amir cited din rodef – a religious license to kill a fellow Jew.
After three failed attempts, law student Yigal Amir successfully carried out the killing, shooting Rabin after a rally in support of the Oslo Accords.
Often portrayed as a great diplomat, Rabin himself had played the same cynical game too. At an election debate in 1988, he boasted about how many Palestinians had been killed, beaten and imprisoned under his command. During the First Intifada, he famously ordered Israeli forces to snap the limbs of Palestinian protesters.
But like Rabin, the same forces that Netanyahu rode to the top of Israeli politics are turning on him. He has proven to be a skilled politician, able to navigate Israel’s tribalistic political landscape by adopting increasingly right-wing policies while explaining away the violence meted out against Palestinians to the outside world. Public rage directed at Netanyahu throughout the episode of Elor Azarya serves as fodder for figures who have positioned themselves to his right. Like Rabin and Netanyahu did before them, Education Minister and leader of the hard-right Jewish Home party Naftali Bennett and former Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman are the most prominent figures to capitalize on Netanyahu’s position.
Two weeks before the rally in Tel Aviv, a feeling of anger prevailed over a town hall event in the soldier’s hometown of Ramle. In contrast to the Rabin Square rally, a musical performance was shouted down and forced off stage by the attendees, the loudest of whom was then invited to speak on stage by the mayor.
“The moment you send a soldier down path and then call him a murderer – there is a limit to what you can do! Bibi go home!” the man shouted, earning wild applause.
Outside the event, a young man warned, “We will no longer vote for you Bibi! Just as we made you rise, we will make you fall!”
“Bennett! Lieberman!” he and his fellow rally-goers shouted.
The public outpouring of support for Elor Azarya successfully created enough public pressure for the Israeli military prosecutor to downgrade murder charges to manslaughter, and set the stage for the celebration in Rabin Square.
Keenly aware of the the political atmosphere, Netanyahu released a statement hours before the rally urging leniency for Azarya and saying, “IDF soldiers are not murderers.”
For now, the primary target of the public rage is Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon, who initially distanced himself from the killing for the sake of Israel’s image abroad.
Ya’alon is widely seen as having abandoned Azarya – an act of betrayal given the military’s sacrosanct status in Israeli society. Throughout the demonstrations I filmed, signs appeared reading “Ya’alon is expendable. The soldier is not.” An image of Ya’alon’s face in crosshairs with a call for “political assassination” was circulated on a right-wing Whatsapp group.
“He’s a fucking leftist kibbutznik,” one Russian-Israeli protester told me. “We are Jewish people and he is Judenrat” [a Nazi collaborator].
The irony of Ya’alon being called a leftist reaches the highest levels of absurdity. His storied career from the ranks of Israel’s elite commando forces, to applying what he called “chemotherapy” in the occupied West Bank during the Second Intifada, to overseeing the 2014 mega-assault on Gaza, has left him responsible for more death and destruction than any of his detractors will likely ever accomplish.
In response to public criticism, Ya’alon called supporters of the soldier, “ISIS”, lending credence to the popular comparison between the self-proclaimed Jewish and Islamic States first made by journalists Max Blumenthal, Rania Khalek and myself.
Aware of the damage that “Death to Arabs!” rallies do to Israel’s image abroad, mainstream media outlets and prominent pro-Israel journalists enlisted in the campaign to smear and delegitimize supporters of Azarya – the vast majority of Jewish Israelis – as an aberration unrepresentative of Israeli society.
US-born Times of Israel correspondent Judah Ari Gross’ article was titled, “Tel Aviv rally for Hebron shooter draws fewer than expected.”
The Jerusalem Post – now run by a former advisor to Naftali Bennett – sent US-born correspondent Ben Hartman to the event. The crowd “numbered only a few thousand in the mostly empty square,” he wrote.
The Post’s video of the event thoroughly whitewashed the event, omitting the regular chants of “Death to Arabs” and “We will burn your village” emanating from the crowd, as well as signs reading “KILL THEM ALL” or the Nazi SS motto “My honor is loyalty.” Notably, the video’s lone interviewee made the same criticism as Naftali Bennett (Jewish Home party leader whom editor-in-chief Yaakov Katz is a former advisor to), gently criticizing the political and military leadership for “basically trying the young man before we knew all the details.”
Even Ha’aretz, the newspaper of Israel’s intelligentsia, recently published a podcast reducing the number of protesters to 2,000 and called Al-Sharif a “terrorist” who “wasn’t innocent at all” despite the Israeli police investigation’s finding that he didn’t carry out the attack. Even if Al-Sharif had carried out the stabbing, an attack on an occupying soldier is legal under international law.
In sharp contrast to popular media portrayal, Azarya’s family and the crowd were inspired by the strong turnout.
“You can not believe the amount of people here!” Charlie Azarya said to the crowd. “All the sane people are here!”
Tablet correspondent Yair Rosenberg, who hails from New York City, dismissed the mob as “extremists.”
Event host and former member of parliament Sharon Gal was well aware of the rage towards the media. “We came to love! They’re trying to make us look bad!” he shouted.
Even before Gal’s incitement, crowds of young men and boys attacked at least three journalists. A video of my colleague David Sheen went viral immediately (Sheen has since uploaded his own footage and combined it with the original viral video).
If Ya’alon’s ISIS comment and mainstream media’s marginalization of those in support for Azarya proved anything, it’s that Mizrahim (Arab Jews) are subject to the anti-Arab racism that is so prevalent throughout Israeli society. Indeed, Mizrahim are the most vocal supporters of Azarya, and that’s because it is Mizrahim who are likely to find themselves the same role Azarya found himself in: tasked with using deadly force to control a civilian population, while Ashkenazim (Eastern European Jews) primarily enlist into the revered air force, or disseminate orders from air-conditioned offices in HaKirya, the Defense Ministry’s central command center in Tel Aviv.
For now, no one should be surprised by an attack, even murder, of anyone accused of being a “leftist.” Incitement by Israeli officials have made B’Tselem and Breaking the Silence the popular object of scorn – even more so than anti-Zionists or supporters of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement. Self-identifying as “pro-Israel” or “pro-peace” won’t save anyone, not even the prime minister.