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On Tuesday, February 21, the IDF soldier Elor Azaria received a prison sentence of 18 months for the killing of a Palestinian. The entire incident was captured on a video that was widely shared, but even that was not sufficient for him to be given anything close to a just punishment. Palestinians, on the other hand, regularly receive significantly harsher sanctions for much less serious crimes, such as throwing stones.
Azaria killed the 21-year-old Palestinian Abdel al-Fattah al-Sharif in March of 2016. There is little in dispute about the facts of the incident. Two Palestinians, including al-Sharif, had allegedly attempted to stab an Israeli soldier in the Tel Rumeida neighborhood of Hebron. The video shows the events that occurred in the aftermath of the attack. Al-Sharif is lying on the ground, motionless, having already been shot, when Azaria approaches him and from point-blank range pumps a bullet into his head. A trickle of blood emerges. An autopsy later confirms that the victim had been alive until that moment. It was Azaria’s bullet that had killed him.
It is difficult to imagine a more open-and-shut case for murder. All of the evidence is there. The crime is on video, for everyone to see. Azaria has expressed no regret for the killing, and in fact was overhead to say that al-Sharif deserved to die.
The IDF routinely fails to investigate its own soldiers
The official policy of the IDF indicates that it is required to open an investigation into every incident that results in the death of a Palestinian in the West Bank, although the Israeli NGO B’Tselem reveals that this policy is more often than not ignored. In 2015, for example, 116 Palestinians were killed in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, and yet only 21 investigations were opened.
A typical example is the case of the 18-year-old Palestinian Tayeb Shohada. It was a Friday afternoon in July of 2014 in Huwarra, a village close to Nablus. An Israeli settler had driven into the middle of a gathering of locals and begun shooting, killing one and injuring three others. During subsequent clashes between Palestinian youths and Israeli forces, soldiers fired teargas, and young men threw rocks. It was a protest like so many others. Suddenly an Israeli sniper decided to gun down the victim. It was not clear why she chose to do so, since the protestors were reportedly at least 100 meters away from the soldiers and clearly posed no threat to them. According to witnesses, the sniper shot the victim directly in the eye. Shortly thereafter, her commander was seen to be congratulating her, clapping her on the shoulder.
What then, is the difference between this incident and the one involving Azaria? In both cases Israeli soldiers executed Palestinians who posed no threat to them. In Huwarra there was no video, and the soldier was never charged or even identified publicly. In Hebron, the murderer was not quite so lucky.
First manslaughter conviction of an IDF soldier since 2005
In the case of Azaria, the IDF did open an investigation into the killing, initially treating it as a murder, but eventually charging him with manslaughter. He was convicted on January 4. Although clearly insufficient, the manslaughter conviction was a major step forward, as it marked the first time since 2005 that an Israeli soldier was convicted of the charge. In that case, however, there were important extenuating circumstances. The victim was the young British activist Thomas Hurndall, and the perpetrator was a Bedouin sniper who had gunned Hurndall down in Gaza while the latter was shepherding children out of harm’s way during an altercation between Palestinians and IDF soldiers. Following pressure by both Hurndall’s family and the British government, the soldier Taysir Hayb was sentenced to eight years in prison, of which he served six-and-a-half.
Most Israeli Jews support Azaria
Al-Sharif’s situation is entirely different. He was a Palestinian and did not have the benefit of a powerful Western government acting on his behalf. And perhaps more importantly, the Bedouin soldier did not enjoy the unconditional support of the people of Israel, as Azaria does.
Some have taken the view that Azaria’s actions have put a stain on the normally impeccable reputation of the army. Moshe Ya’alon, defense minister at the time of the murder, stated that “the incident is highly severe, and completely contrary to the IDF’s values and its combat morals. We must not allow, even as our blood boils, such a loss of faculties and control. This incident will be dealt with in the strictest manner.”
The overwhelming majority of Israeli Jews, however, view Azaria as a victim or even as something of a hero. Demonstrations have been organized in his support, and right-wing politicians have flocked to his side. Education minister Naftali Bennet argued before the verdict that if he were convicted, Azaria should not spend even a single day in prison.
“There is no soldier who doesn’t know that it’s against the rules to shoot a neutralized terrorist. On the other hand, it is necessary to support our soldiers in the field who are risking their lives in the face of murderous terrorism,” he said. Shortly after the sentencing he joined other politicians in calling for Azaria to be pardoned. “The security of Israel’s citizens necessitates an immediate pardon for Elor Azaria,” he said.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said after the announcement of the verdict that “the soldiers of the IDF are our sons and daughters, and they need to remain above dispute.” Bennet and Netanyahu are far from alone in their views. According to a poll taken shortly after Azaria’s guilty verdict was reached, 67% of Israelis are in favor of a pardon, while 19% are against it.
Some voices, such as those of the Israeli NGO Adalah, have called for harsher penalties, arguing that the light sentence is emblematic of “the impunity enjoyed by Israeli security personnel accused of crimes against Palestinians.” However, these voices are by far in the minority.
What is extremely troubling about this case is that there seems to be very little discussion of justice for the Palestinian victim. Instead, the debate centers only on the effects of Azaria’s actions on the reputation of the army. The victim plays no role in this particular discussion. He does not matter. He was a Palestinian, a terrorist.
Palestinians receive harsher sentences for less serious crimes
In March of 2013, a female settler was involved in a car accident near the West Bank village of Hares, in which her one of her daughters sustained serious injuries, of which she died two years later. At first the settler claimed that the accident was caused by a truck that had stopped by the side of the road to repair a flat tire, but then she changed her story. It was not the truck that had caused the accident, but several stone-throwing Palestinian youths that made her lose control of her vehicle. There were no eyewitnesses, and there were many inconsistencies with both the settler’s and the truck driver’s testimonies, but that did not prevent the Israeli authorities from moving forward with the investigation.
A few days after the accident, rumors began to surface that it had been a terrorist attack, and the subsequent media storm caused 61 witnesses to come forward, claiming that their cars had also been damaged by stones thrown on the same road that day. Prime Minister Netanyahu himself got involved, announcing proudly that “he had caught the terrorists that did it.”
The army went into action, arresting nineteen teenagers from Hares and another nearby village. The teens were tortured until five of them were coerced into confessing to the crime of throwing stones. The plight of these boys, who became known as the Hares Boys, garnered international attention, but it was not enough to save them from their fate. On November 26, 2015, they were sentenced to 15 years in prison.
It is likely that in the future Palestinians will face increasingly harsh punishment for what are usually minor crimes. In 2015, the Israeli cabinet approved a law that established a mandatory minimum sentence of four years for the crime of stone-throwing, more than twice as long as Azaria’s sentence. In March of 2016, five Palestinian teens were imprisoned under this law for throwing stones in East Jerusalem.
Azaria and the Hares Boys
How does one compare the situations of Elor Azaria and the Hares Boys? On the one hand there is incontrovertible evidence of an execution-style murder. On the other, there is little indication of even the occurrence of a crime, much less that the Hares Boys were involved in any way. And yet Azaria receives an 18-month sentence, while the Palestinian teens from Hares will spend 15 years of their lives in prison.