This week, former Israeli Defence Forces (IDF) soldier, Sergeant Elor Azaria, had his appeal against a manslaughter conviction that was quashed by an Israeli military court, the Haaretz news service has reported. Azaria’s victim, 21-year-old Palestinian Abdul Fatah al-Sharif, had been lying on the road unarmed and subdued at the time he was killed. Al-Sharif had attacked and wounded another Israeli soldier with a knife. The judicial decision comes at a tense time for Palestine-Israel relations, as Israeli communities in the West Bank reel from an ongoing spate of stabbing attacks by Palestinian lone wolves.
Azaria’s crime and the reaffirmation of his conviction are emblematic of a newly developing dichotomy in Israeli society. While the strident nationalism that has typically dominated official Israeli treatment of issues like this still dominates, many Israelis have criticized the current government for failing to unequivocally condemn Azaria’s actions. For instance, a mere two months ago, thousands of Israelis protested against what the head of Israeli NGO ‘Peace Now,’ Avi Buskila, describes as “a government perpetuating occupation, violence and racism.”
Indeed, official statements on the matter from Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and members of his cabinet have only expressed support for Azaria and his family, with very little official attention being given to the grieving family of al-Sharif. Netanyahu has also raised the possibility of a pardon for the soldier, which has effectively infuriated those hoping to see Azaria more seriously punished. At present, Azaria will only be serving a prison sentence of 18 months, which others have pointed out as being manifestly inadequate given the seriousness of the crime committed.
As a Human Rights Watch report suggests, 33 Israelis have been killed by Palestinian assailants motivated by the continued Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip since late 2015. Yet, in the same period, Israeli security forces have killed over 160 Palestinians suspected of assisting or partaking in these attacks. Among those killed have been women and children, with at least one of the children killed being as young as 10 years old. Yet, in many of these cases, the perpetrators of the killings have escaped without convictions and enjoyed the protection of anonymity courtesy of the Israel Defense Forces (IDF). For instance, in 2014, a Palestinian family of five was killed when IDF soldiers (whose identity has been kept secret) fired missiles at their house. According to Haaretz, the IDF is yet to take any form of disciplinary action against these soldiers or any others who perpetrated similar crimes during an Israeli military operation in Gaza that year.
However legitimate Israelis believe their right of self-defence to be, crimes like Azaria’s are not instances where this right is relevant. It is absolutely imperative that powerful voices in Israel’s political and military spheres unequivocally denounce this and similar killings as being fundamentally unacceptable. The IDF’s rules of engagement are being warped into a justification for the killing of unarmed children fleeing from soldiers, and in this instance of a completely incapacitated, disarmed adult. While the quashing of Azaria’s appeal is a positive step towards universal condemnation of these crimes from the higher levels of the Israeli government, it is not enough. Every day that powerful Israelis like Netanyahu condone violence of this kind, the vicious cycle of Israeli-Palestinian conflict continues, snuffing out innocent lives.
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