The shot fired by Elor Azaria at a subdued Palestinian assailant in Hebron last March was a watershed moment for Israeli society. It has reorganized people into two groups (leading to then-Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon finding himself in the same boat as Meretz Chairwoman Zehava Galon). Indeed, it serves as a sort of MRI image that maps the most explosive and inflamed issues in Israel: racism and the dehumanization of the Palestinians; the penetration of Kahanism into the heart of Israeli public affairs; the struggle for the nature of government; and the confrontation between the so-called “old elites” and the forces hostile to them.
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Those defending Azaria realize that their arguments in court are crumbling. The entire chain of command – from his comrades who only want to help him (Cpl. M. testified that he didn’t feel any danger that warranted the shooting), through his company commander, battalion commander, brigade commander and right up to the former defense minister – sided with the legal system and, indirectly, the forces of democracy.
Despite the difficulty of invoking the word democracy in relation to what happens every day in Hebron, even the army’s harshest critics have to admit that, in this specific case, for now, the system is working. One after the other, army representatives have negated the defense’s argument, which suggested that the shooting was in self-defense or a result of operational necessity, and strengthened the argument that this was a violent and vindictive act of someone taking the law into his own hands. The only “concession” made – not to be taken lightly – was the reduction of the charge against Azaria from murder (made during the request to extend his detention) to manslaughter (the final indictment).
In light of this relatively strong lineup, one can understand the emotional outbursts of the Azaria family. “I have never seen such conduct in my entire life. It is corrupt. Liars! You’re trying everything to frame him,” his father, Charlie, cried out in the courtroom. “They want to jail him for a combat mission. Somebody is pulling the strings.” His lawyer cried out, “What’s going on here is a disgrace!”
Azaria’s father is talking about lies, but the truth was plainly stated by his son at the scene of the incident. “Terrorists should be killed,” Azaria declared, according to the testimonies of his company commander and other soldiers. Azaria doesn’t repeat these words in court, and neither do his family or attorneys. They’re sticking to self-defense as an argument. Other than marginal right-wingers who repeat what he declared at the scene, or the attending ambulance driver Ofer Ohana’s words (“Whoever comes to kill Jews, let them burn him in the fire of hell today”), Azaria’s advocates prefer to talk about the complexities of the situation, the location and the terrorist’s long coat, which could have concealed an explosive device. Whether by conscious choice or not, they wish to defend Azaria, who doesn’t wish to become a revolutionary who defends what he did by saying, “Yes, I want to change the system. In the army in which I serve, an Arab terrorist will not survive.”
Against this backdrop, it’s interesting to note Azaria’s father’s cry to the prime minister, who called him early on in the proceedings and even considered meeting him. “Where is the prime minister? Where is the whole system?” Charlie Azaria asked in court. The father is calling on the premier to act against the army, the state’s most important executive branch. This amazing fact – that the head of the state himself is invoked – characterizes Netanyahu’s rule with all its attendant dangers: The father is calling on the prime minister to sabotage the very system he is in charge of protecting.
Netanyahu is actually the revolutionary dismantling the state and its institutions. It’s the engine that helps him cling to power. All Azaria did was shoot the most dangerous element of those who are heading to the voting booths in their droves, those who gave the Nazis the idea of exterminating Jews and are now continuing their quest. In that sense, at least, Azaria is indeed just a common soldier.