Why the Hebron Shooter Trial Is Dividing Israel

Elor Azaria is a household name across Israel today. But ten months ago, on the morning of March 24 2016, he was an anonymous inexperienced teenage soldier serving as a medic in the aftermath of a terror attack in the West Bank city of Hebron.

Supporters weeping outside the courthouse, after the guilty verdict was given, Tel Aviv, January 4, 2017.
Oded Balilty/AP

This story was originally published after Elor Azaria's conviction in January.

Just as the O.J. Simpson trial exposed the fault lines and racial divisions in American society decades ago, the public reaction to Elor Azaria’s trial and verdict revealed how sharply Israelis are split into deeply divided political and social camps.

Elor Azaria is a household name across Israel today. But ten months ago, on the morning of March 24 2016, he was an anonymous inexperienced teenage soldier serving as a medic in the aftermath of a terror attack in the West Bank city of Hebron. Tensions were running high, as the months-long terror wave was at its height with stabbings and car attacks taking place. Soldiers tasked with patrolling the West Bank were tense and exhausted.

Violence erupts outside of Hebron shooter trial in Tel Aviv Haaretz

A 19-year-old soldier serving in the Kfir Brigade, Azaria arrived on the scene after Abd Fatah al-Sharif was lying on the ground motionless, minutes after he had attempted to stab a soldier, injured as his attempted attack was being foiled. The knife with which he had attempted to stab a soldier lay far from his hand. Suddenly, without explanation, Azaria, who had been standing in a group of people near where al-Sharif was lying prone on the ground, walked toward the Palestinian with his hand on his weapon and shot him in the head, killing him.

Read the Judges' summary of the verdict delivered by a Tel Aviv military court Wednesday.

After the shooting, his company commander, Major Tom Neeman confronted him and asked what he was doing. Azaria’s reply, according to Neeman’s testimony was "This terrorist was alive, and he needs to die."

Read more on Azaria verdict: How the judges unraveled Elor Azaria's defense | Why the Hebron shooter trial is dividing Israel | Netanyahu threw army under the bus / Analysis | Enemies of Israeli republic suffer setback / Analysis  | Hebron soldier Elor Azaria is no hero / Analysis | Israel's ruling party more dangerous than pro-Azaria mob / Analysis | Hebron shooter convicted, but those responsible will never be put to trial / Analysis | The death throes of a healthy society / Opinion

Al-Sharif was far from the first or the last Palestinian killed in the wake of an attempted stabbing in the West Bank as part of the wave of attacks that has still not completely subsided yet. The key difference in this case was the videotape - film captured by a Palestinian human rights activist affiliated with B’Tselem.

Elor Azaria: Day of the incident-Court to make its decision.
B'Tselem, Ofer Vaknin, Ilan Assayag, Moti Milrod, David Bachar and REUTERS/Heidi Levine/Pool

Azaria’s behavior had already caught the notice of his superior officers - the shooting took place at 8:30 A.M., and was reported to IDF Central Command less than an hour later. An investigation was well underway by noon. But it was only later in the day, when the video hit television sets and computer screens, that the incident became a media sensation that the country could not stop talking about. Without the images that went viral in the country and around the world, Azaria’s story may have very well played out differently, and nobody would have known his name. But with the spotlight glaring on his case, Azaria was charged with murder, later reduced to manslaughter. He stood trial for the past three months.

The Hebron shooter's case became a Rorschach test for Israeli military leaders, politicians and the public, with every aspect of the incident examined, debated and argued, and seen through the lenses of differing interests and goals.  

For military leaders, most prominently Chief of Staff Gadi Eisenkot it has clearly been crucial that the case serve as a message that the Israel Defense Forces does not compromise when it comes to the rules of engagement and the chain of command. For leftists, his actions represent the warping of core moral values and the dehumanization of Palestinians after nearly 50 years of occupation. Politicians on the right view Azaria as a martyr - a motivated and well-meaning soldier, who did nothing wrong other than try to protect those around him from a terrorist that - he claimed - was a threat. As they see it, Azaria has been victimized by an elitist and leftist establishment using him as a sacrificial lamb in order to improve the country’s image in the eyes of the world. As deputy foreign minister Tzipi Hotovely put it, the legal ordeal was merely “a show-trial with a predetermined conclusion.”

His trial had OJ-like moments: Soldiers and officers offering up different versions of the same events, pointing fingers at one another. There were also accusations of moving of weapons and tampering with evidence.

The family drama around the trial also took on soap opera dimensions. His parents clearly suffered emotionally and physically throughout the ordeal. His father, Charlie, had a stress-induced stroke during the trial. His mother collapsed during a television interview, and appeared to be wasting away, saying that she couldn’t eat. Even those who have viewed Azaria himself as a young man who committed a shocking crime and is undeserving of mercy have felt pity for his parents.

It all reached a fever pitch as the verdict was read out. Angry crowds demonstrated in the street outside the courthouse, clashing with police. The public was glued to their television screens and smartphones as Judge Maya Heller took hours to finally reveal the verdict - Azaria had been found guilty. Politicians called for clemency and a pardon immediately after.

It is likely that the public spectacle won’t be over anytime soon. As closely as they have watched every other aspect of the Azaria affair play out, Israelis will be watching, criticizing and arguing over the soldier sentencing and the aftermath.

While he may not have begun this ordeal as a celebrity, Elor Azaria is famous now. More importantly, he possesses something even more powerful: a nation full of citizens who identify with his plight. In a country with universal conscription, every Israeli who has served in the IDF, who has a son or daughter in uniform - or anticipates having one in uniform one day imagines themselves or their loved-ones in that position.

That identification and sympathy which runs through Israeli society and its political ramifications is hard to fight. Chief of Staff Eisenkot tried on the eve of the verdict, insisting that Azaria was not, as his defenders portray him “everyone’s child” but a legal adult, a soldier sworn to uphold orders but had flouted them.

While he is factually correct, facts are no match for emotions running high. The streak of sympathy for Azaria and his family explains why politicians like Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who at first stood staunchly by the army’s decision to prosecute Azaria, softened and controversially called his parents, reassuring them that "As a father of a soldier I understand your distress."

It also explains why, immediately following Wednesday’s verdict, a left-wing politician like the Zionist Union’s Shelly Yacimovitch, made the surprise move of joining her rightist counterparts, including Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, in asking President Reuven Rivlin to consider pardoning Azaria, taking pity on him. Yacimovitch said that she worried the young man’s “narrow shoulders will not be able to withstand the weight” of the “raging and explosive” aftermath that has torn the country apart. The rift in Israeli society existed before, but widened dramatically when Azaria fired his gun at the head of a disarmed and disabled Palestinian terrorist that morning in March.