Yesterday’s Israeli military court ruling which found Sgt. Elor Azaria guilty of manslaughter in the killing of Abed al-Fattah al-Sharif has revealed long-simmering fissures in Israeli society that, according to experts, point to a growing anti-democratic trend in the country and reinforce the lack of accountability for Palestinians within the Israeli justice system.
A spokesperson for Palestinian Knesset member Hanin Zoabi, summarizing a Hebrew press statement released by her office, told Mondoweiss that Azaria’s conviction is the exception that proves the rule.
“The only difference between this case and others is this was caught on camera,” the spokesperson stated. “Hundreds of Palestinians are murdered every year and nobody pays attention to it, and only because this was on camera did it go viral in the media here and internationally and made big news — but really it is something that happens every single day.”
“What is more surprising is the Israeli public’s and politicians reaction, which shows what’s really going on.”
Immediately following the court ruling, Israeli politicians, including Israel’s Education Minister Naftali Bennett, Culture Minister Miri Regev and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, called for the pardoning of Azaria.
On his official Facebook page, on Wednesday Netanyahu wrote: “This is a difficult and painful day … The soldiers of the IDF are all of our sons and daughters, and they need to remain above dispute. I support granting a pardon to Elor Azaria.”
Israeli Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman stood with the military court’s ruling, terming the calls for a pardon, “ignorance and slogans.”
During the trial, hundreds protested in favor of Azaria outside of the courtroom in Tel Aviv, clashing with police and counter-protesters.
Ido Zelkovitz, head of the Middle East studies department at Max Stern Academic College of Emek Yezreel and senior researcher at the University of Haifa told Mondoweiss that the case has had a deep impact on Israeli society, which will continue to experience ripples long after a decision on whether or not Azaria will be pardoned has been reached.
Zelkovitz said the basis for the division lies between the Israeli perspective that the Israeli army should be held to the highest moral standard, and the idea that Israeli society should unquestionably support its military.
“An interesting fact, is that right now we are seeing more support for the soldier himself,” Zelkovitz said, referring to Azaria, “than we are for the Israeli military as an institution, which is a new phenomena.”
“More than 60 percent of the Israeli society supports Azaria, and a huge camp is calling for his pardon, so it shows the issue of morality within the army is becoming less and less important among large levels of Israeli society, and that should be a red sign to those who believe in democracy,” Zelkovitz told Mondoweiss.
While Zelkovitz has observed a division between those Israelis who view Azaria as a hero, and those who believe he committed a wrong, both camps come together under one common ground, which in the end, will lead to the full societal support of a presidential pardon.
“After Azaria is sentenced and a little bit of time passes, by-and-large all of Israeli society, even the far left, will be in favor of pardoning him to discontinue any sentence reached, because the thing is — if there is something all Israelis have in common concerning their views on this case — it is that, at the end of the day, Israelis believe Azaria shot a terrorist,” Zelkovitz explained. “Even if he was unarmed and he couldn’t put anyone in danger, the common idea among all the Israeli camps is that Azaria shot a terrorist and there is no debate about that question — it is a mutual understanding. That is why in the future the pardon will be accepted.”
Siam Nawara, the father of slain Nadeem Nawara who was shot dead by an Israeli soldier in 2014 during a peaceful protest, told Mondoweiss that it is precisely for that reason that Palestinians will never have a fair trial against Israeli soldiers within the Israeli judicial system.
“In Israel there is no justice for Palestinians,” Siam told Mondoweiss on Thursday. “I think we must go to the International Criminal Court to get justice in cases like these, because the Israeli soldier will always be seen as the hero and the Palestinian will always be seen as the terrorist in the Israeli system.”
Philip Luther, Research and Advocacy Director for the Middle East and North Africa at Amnesty International, who has been critical of what Amnesty has called “the rampant impunity for unlawful killings” of Palestinians in the occupied Palestinian territory, saw the conviction as a sign of hope.
Luther said the conviction was a “rare occurrence in a country with a long record of using excessive and unwarranted force, where soldiers who may have committed crimes under international law very seldom face prosecution.”
“The verdict is a small step in the right direction and offers a glimmer of hope that soldiers who commit unlawful killings may no longer go unpunished,” Luther said.
In a memorandum sent to Israeli authorities in September, Amnesty International highlighted at least 20 cases of what the group called “unlawful killings of Palestinians by Israeli forces.” In at least 15 of the 20 cases, Amnesty found that the Palestinian was deliberately shot dead, despite “posing no imminent threat to life.”
Manslaughter charges in Israel carry a maximum prison sentence of 20 years. Even without a pardon, Azaria can appeal both the conviction and whatever sentence he may be charged with to the Israeli military appeals court. Azaria’s lawyer told Israeli media his defense plans on appealing the ruling.
In 2016, at least 112 Palestinians were shot dead by Israelis, according to Ma’an News Agency. Of those incidents, Azaria was the only Israeli formally charged with a killing.