The trial of Sergeant Elor Azaria, who was convicted of manslaughter on Wednesday in the killing of a wounded Palestinian assailant, should have been simple. But nothing that happens in Hebron is ever simple.
The West Bank city is home to some 220,000 people, 99 percent of them Palestinians. Of the 2,000 Israelis in Hebron, half are settlers and the other half are security personnel who guard them – soldiers and border-police officers. Elor Azaria was part of the city battalion, an infantry unit drawn by rota from five regular IDF brigades, which guards the tiny Jewish neighborhoods for four months at a time.
Azaria’s unit was serving in Hebron on March 24, 2016, the day Azaria shot Abd Fatah al-Sharif at the Gilbert Roadblock in Hebron. Al-Sharif, who had been shot 11 minutes earlier while trying to stab soldiers from Azaria’s unit, was lying critically wounded on the ground. His co-perpetrator Ramzi Alkasrawi died in the initial shooting. Azaria, a company medic, had arrived on the scene about six minutes after the first shooting and tended to his fellow soldier, who was lightly wounded in the stabbing attack. Five minutes later Azaria summarily executed Al-Sharif.
It took presiding judge Colonel Maya Heller nearly three hours to read out the verdict, but it was clear from the start where she and the military court she headed were going. For the first time in 11 years, an Israel Defense Forces court was about to find a soldier on operational duty guilty of manslaughter. As the dust began to settle after the verdict, it was prosecutor Nadav Weissman who put it best when he said to the media “I think the verdict speaks for itself.” And how.
Colonel Heller and her two colleagues on the bench didn’t leave one stone standing of the construction that Azaria’s defense team had tried to erect over the six months of the trial. The pathologist’s report they produced, the expert forensic witnesses and retired generals, the single officer in Azaria’s unit who tried to support his version of events, the Hebron settlers’ security and medical personnel – all were found to be untrustworthy, contradictory and “ill-informed”.
Long before the judge reached the point in the verdict where she determined that Azaria had acted “calmly, without urgency, in a calculated fashion”, the bottom-line was clear. The arguments by the defense that Azaria thought Al-Sharif may be carrying a bomb, that he was suffering from stress and post-trauma and that he hadn’t actually killed al-Sharif were all demonstrably false and contradictory.
In the dozens of pages read by the judge, there was not one point on which the judges accepted any of the arguments put forward by the defence. This most controversial of trials turned out to be an open-and-shut case.
Azaria’s commanders knew immediately after the incident that it was a serious case and notified Military Police investigators. Then it emerged that a researcher of human rights organization B’tselem had filmed the entire incident. At that point, it was clear that the only real question would be whether Azaria would be charged with murder or manslaughter, as is usually the case with operational incidents. The prosecution opted for manslaughter.
The prosecutor, Nadav Weissman, was wearing a lieutenant-colonel’s uniform, but he is more used to a business suit as a partner in one of the top law firms in Tel Aviv. One of the most expensive litigators in the country, he was pressed into reserve duty to ensure an efficient and damning case for the prosecution. It should have been a simple case to prosecute, even for a much less-experienced attorney, were it not for Hebron and the singular role of the city battalion, with which Azaria served.
Other battalions in the West Bank and on Israel’s borders are spread out over wide sectors, sometimes hundreds of kilometers long. The city battalion is the only battalion-size combat unit that serves in such close quarters to the civilian population, both settlers and Palestinians. Aside from religious communities which support the settlers and make pilgrimages to the Tomb of the Patriarchs, few Israelis visit Hebron.
For most of the young conscripts in the city battalion, Hebron is a stark and unexpected experience of the military occupation. It is no coincidence that it was this experience that gave birth to Breaking the Silence, the movement of former IDF combat soldiers who challenge Israeli society with their accounts of service in the West Bank. Many of Breaking the Silence’s founders and current activists were motivated to speak out by the months they spent in Hebron. Others, like Azaria, a resident of the working-class town of Ramle, near Tel Aviv, are pushed in the opposite direction.
Azaria’s supporters sought to portray him as “the child of all of us” – a slogan first used a decade ago to pressure the government into cutting a deal with Hamas in order to release captured soldier Gilad Shalit. It was, then and now, a ridiculous way to describe a young man, a responsible adult entrusted by the IDF with lethal firepower. But in Azaria’s case, at least, there is a grain of truth to it, as well.
For obvious reasons, the IDF sought to portray the sergeant as a rotten apple, to be thrown out of the barrel, put on trial and made an example of. But while as an adult he is fully responsible for his actions and, instead of rallying around his family, we should be asking what in his upbringing and education contributed to that fatal shooting, he is one of us.
Every single Israeli government of the last 49 years and the Israeli citizens who voted it into power conspired to place him in a bizarre situation that morning in Hebron. The politicians and pundits, not just those on the far-right, who are now baying against the military court, but even “mainstream” ones like centrist Yesh Atid party leader Yair Lapid, who last year made posturing speeches on how Palestinian attackers should not be allowed to live, gave Azaria a helping hand.
And while the IDF high command acted commendably, in a toxic public atmosphere, to put him on trial and repudiate his actions, they shoulder part of the blame, as well. Azaria served in the Kfir Brigade, an infantry unit whose sole role is to serve in the West Bank on policing and anti-terror missions and which, not surprisingly, has the highest rate of “normative incidents”, the military’s anodyne term for abuse of Palestinian citizens. But usually those incidents are tucked away, far from the view of the Israeli public. The Azaria shooting has shaken the uneasy civil-military structure and brought Hebron much closer to Tel Aviv.
The nine-and-a-half months that have passed since the shooting have pitted the IDF general command, which rushed to condemn Azaria, against the politicians of the right-wing coalition, including against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who called Azaria’s father Charlie before the trial began to express his support for the family. The shooting and subsequent trial were among the factors that cost former defense minister Moshe Yaalon his job. Ya’alon, who had backed his generals and called Azaria “a soldier who fouled”, was replaced by Avigdor Lieberman, who had attended Azaria’s arraignment, along with hundreds of supporters. It created a split between the military and the section of Israeli society that usually claims to be the most pro-IDF.
The reading of the verdict on Wednesday morning was a three-ring circus. In the center was the tiny Courtroom A, a cramped, six-by-eight meter space filled with lawyers, Azaria’s family and friends and journalists pressed up against each other. The middle circle was a cordoned-off area in the IDF’s Tel Aviv headquarters compound, surrounding the white-washed military court building, where the media were allowed to roam and broadcast. Thousands of soldiers of all ranks hurrying to their offices in the compound were forbidden to enter it. Outside, on Derekh Hashalom, one of the city’s central thoroughfares, hundreds protested against the IDF which they accused having “abandoned a soldier on the battlefield”.
You don’t see many officers wearing the Kfir camouflage-pattern beret in IDF headquarters. It’s not a unit for high-flyers destined for glory and senior command. And central Tel Aviv is normally the furthest place from Hebron in terms of culture and atmosphere. Nevertheless, the scene in the courtroom mirrored the scene of the shooting in the Old City of Hebron on that morning last March, where in the space of 11 minutes, Abd Fatah al-Sharif went from being the would-be murderer to the victim. On Wednesday, Sergeant Azaria was transformed from a soldier and medic to a convicted criminal, while on the streets protestors were insisting he was the real victim.
The two twenty-year-old men – the Palestinian attacker and the Israeli soldier – are are of lesset importance now. One is dead, while the other is headed for prison, and may or may not be pardoned in due course by the president. But they are now bit-players to the furies released by the case in the streets of Israel and the wild realms of cyberspace. Elor Azaria is indeed the child of all of us, but none of his parents will take responsibility for Azaria’s actions.
Want to enjoy 'Zen' reading - with no ads and just the article? Subscribe todaySubscribe now