The case of the combat soldiers from the Netzah Yehuda Nahal Haredi battalion, arrested after they viciously beat up a Bedouin gas station attendant in the Negev, has so far received limited public attention. The media have reported on occasion about the suspects having their remands extended, and about demonstrations in support of the soldiers organized by their parents. But it seems there is something worthy of greater interest, mostly because it reflects the direct continuation of responses to the case of Elor Azaria, the soldier who killed an incapacitated Palestinian terrorist in Hebron in 2016.
The incident the Netzah Yehuda soldiers were involved in was not the result of a security matter. It now appears to have been a brawl, with an apparent racial angle, and if those involved had not been armed soldiers in uniform, it would have ended with just another one of those viral videos in which you see the sides hitting each other with the usual white plastic chairs. But now it is taking on the proportions of a new Elor Azaria affair. A volatile mixture of family, Kahanists and right-wing weirdos have been enlisted to help the soldiers, using the entire arsenal of claims that were employed to justify Azaria’s actions.
After all, Azaria was captured on camera as he decided to execute a Palestinian lying on the ground who had stabbed one of his comrades, and who did not endanger him in any real way. All the defense’s claims raised by his lawyer – that there was a danger that only the defendant could see, that the terrorist had further malicious plans, that the chain of command conspired to turn Azaria into a scapegoat – were rejected by two panels of judges.
This did not keep the sides from propagating and spreading myths. Azaria was described as our collective son, a martyr harassed by the system to whitewash its sins. According to a number of public opinion polls, most of the Jews in Israel justified his actions.
It is a short and logical road that leads from here to the present affair involving the Nahal Haredi soldiers. It includes a demonstration held last week in front of the home of Military Advocate General, Maj. Gen. Sharon Afek, in Tel Aviv. The parents claim that in his insistence on investigating the affair and bringing them to trial, Afek has forsaken the soldiers. The fact that the soldiers were not at all on an operational mission at the time – they were on their way back to their unit after paying a condolence visit, and that the incident occurred within Israel and not in the West Bank – has had no effect on them.
The soldiers became holy and immune from the moment they put on their uniforms. It seems it is no accident that a number of the people behind the weekly demonstrations in support of Netanyahu in Petah Tikva, near the home of the former judge advocate general – and now attorney general, Avichai Mendelblit – are also involved in the demonstrations on behalf of the Nahal Haredi soldiers.
Another reminder of these profound trends can be seen in the responses on social media to the short video clip posted after another incident in Hebron in which two IDF soldiers can be seen shoving and yelling at a Palestinian father protecting his son. The boy looks to be about seven or eight, and the soldiers claimed he had thrown stones at them. Watching the video is anguishing for two reasons: One, for the father, who continues to adamantly defend his son, even when the soldiers point a gun at him at close range; and also for the soldiers, who are engaged in an impossible policing mission.
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This is the picture that anyone who has spent years in the territories, during their military service, covering it as a journalist – or both – knows so well. But when journalists posted the clip on Twitter, they were met with a wave of hate in response. Once again, the public has its say: The soldiers are pure and any criticism of them is completely forbidden. This is not the position of the military advocate general, nor that of the IDF chief of staff or senior commanders – but public opinion has already shifted, in what looks to be an irreversible process.