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“Do You Want to Die Here?” How Azaria Exposed the Reality of Israel’s Colonial Project

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It is no coincidence that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu—who was then followed by a slew of Ministers and Knesset Members—has called for presidential pardon for Elor Azaria. Azaria was found guilty of manslaughter after he shot and killed Yusri al-Sharif as he lay wounded on the ground.

This striking mobilization to exonerate Azaria, which cuts across party lines and includes MKs from Labor, should actually come as no surprise, since the desired pardon is not really about absolving one lone murderer, but rather an effort to vindicate Israel’s fifty year occupation. Consciously or unconsciously, each and every government official calling for such absolution understands that Azaria is in no way an aberration of Israel’s colonial project, but rather a clear symptom ofits very structure.

The Bystanders Are Living Proof

The bystanders are testimony to the structure’s effect. The video released by the Israeli human rights organization B’Tselem first depicts al-Sharif lying on the ground, wounded, as scores of soldiers and settlers stand near his body chatting, talking on the phone and taking pictures. Several medics are at the scene, but they, too, are oblivious to the injured Palestinian. Indeed, one of these medics is the killer.

Following the execution, not one of the bystanders appears surprised; no one grabs Azaria and pushes him away from the scene, no one runs to al-Sharif to see if he can be resuscitated; rather, the bystanders simply continue to chat. The laidback everydayness of those standing just mere meters away from an execution can certainly be understood as a manifestation of what Hannah Arendt has called the banality of evil.  Yet, it also profoundly captures something crucial about the structure of Israel’s colonial project.

Kfir Brigade

Azaria is a soldier in the Kfir Brigade. This brigade, as John Brown recently exposed, has been responsible for killing many Palestinians, among them Mustafa Tamimi who was shot in the head with a long range tear gas canister during a weekly demonstration in his village, Nabi Saleh. The soldier who killed Tamimi in 2011 was sitting in a military jeep five meters from Tamimi when he aimed and fired his gun.

Two months ago, four other soldiers from the same brigade were indicted for electrifying a Palestinian; evidence emerged that they had taken pictures of him as he begs for his life. Two other soldiers were charged with beating Palestinian children, sticking an electric heat blower in the face of one of them. John Brown cites yet another confession made by a soldier from the same Brigade:

We would go on a patrol, and if we even saw a child looking at us in a not nice way –he would receive a slap on the spot. On one of these patrols, some threw stones at us. We caught one of the children who we knew saw the stone thrower. We beat him so bad until he was willing to identify the thrower. We then took [the fourteen-year-old stone thrower] from his bed outside. We pointed to some holes in the ground while we stuck the barrels of our rifles in his mouth and said to him: “Do you want to die here? Just choose a place where you want to be buried.”

Not a Rotten Apple

Azaria, in other words, is not a rotten apple. Rather, his actions must be understood as part and parcel of the larger structure that constitutes and shapes Israel’s colonial project. Azaria was merely unlucky because he was caught executing a Palestinian on video. Indeed, large parts of the Israeli public realize this and therefore does not perceive Azaria as an outlier, which helps explain the widespread support he has garnered.

Thus, it would be a grave mistake to conclude, as the Israeli press has done, that the politicians are simply pandering to the mob. Netanyahu recognizes that Azaria is a peg in the machine, as does Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman, and it is for this reason that they are calling upon the President to pardon him. They also know that if Azaria is handed down a twenty-year sentence, the structure that produces the likes of Azaria and the everyday taken-for-granted violence needed to sustain Israel’s colonial endeavor could well be challenged from within.

However, it is also crucial not to lose sight of what they are consciously supporting. For Azaria and those who were standing by him on the Hebron street as well as for all of his fans–citizens and politicians alike–Palestinians like Yusri al-Sharif are never victims or fully human beings; they are prey.  Thus, they can not only be legitimately hunted, but killing them is never a crime, and more often than not, it is not even considered a misdemeanor.

First published on Al Jazeera.

Neve Gordon is a Leverhulme Visiting Professor in the Department of Politics and International Studies and the co-author of The Human Right to Dominate.

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