Against a backdrop of controversy and politicized hostility, an Israeli court today delivered a brilliant show of justice that should inspire countries everywhere- the United States of America included. The military court in Jaffa found former IDF Sgt. Elor Azaria guilty of manslaughter. Azaria, who on March 24, 2016 shot Abdel Fattah al-Sharif, a Palestinian terrorist, in the head was convicted unanimously by all three judges on the bench.

Hundreds in Tel Aviv protested the verdict, and the IDF have assigned security personnel to escort the military prosecutor Lt. Col. Nadav Weissman and the military judges Col. Maya Heller, Col. Carmel Wahabi, and Lt. Col. Yaron Sitbon in the upcoming days to protect them against retribution. IDF Chief of Staff Lt. General Gadi Eizenkot condemned Azaria’s actions, and as reported by Ynet News, the protesters in Tel Aviv hinted ominously at violence when they started chanting “Gadi, Gadi beware, Rabin’s looking for a friend.” The protesters have allies in the government, where many have expressed sympathy for Azaria, a victim and not a murderer in their eyes.

Interestingly, Azaria was not on the scene of the incident from the beginning. He arrived at the Hebron checkpoint six minutes after Shari and another Palestinian stabbed an Israeli soldier. Both Palestinians were shot on the spot, and while the other attacker died immediately, Sharif was only wounded, lying listlessly on the ground. By the time Azaria had joined the scene, everything had become calm again, as reported by the New York Times. Now eleven minutes after the stabbing had taken place, Azaria turned towards Sharif and shot him in the head (fortunately, the incident was filmed by a Palestinian volunteer for B’Tselem, an Israeli human rights organization that the right-wing is obsessed with silencing). Azaria’s company commander Maj. Tom Naaman testified in court that the knife was far away from Sharif’s grasp, and that he did not feel any danger from the fallen terrorist. “I was angry at him [Azaria] for doing this,” Maj. Naaman told the court and as reported in the New York Times. “Essentially, a shooting had been conducted at the scene that I was in charge of, without my permission.”

Azaria claims that he shot Sharif because he thought the Palestinian may have been wearing a suicide vest, an argument that has failed to convince since Azaria did not warn any of the other Israelis present to clear the scene, and if a suicide vest had been a genuine concern, he may have detonated the vest with his bullet. Azaria’s true reason for shooting Sharif was revealed in an IDF document leaked to Vice News. After shooting Sharif, Azaria told a commander, “He’s a terrorist, he needs to die.” This piece of evidence stayed with Judge Heller, who described Azaria’s killing as motivated by nothing other than revenge (it is worth reading her whole verdict). Vengeance and personal belief, in a space where the hazards have been subdued or not, cannot be the driving forces of a moral army.

Some conservative protesters have cried that Azaria is a child, and should be treated as such. Funny that they didn’t think he was a kid when he was conscripted into the IDF and handed a gun. If someone is still considered to be a child when they are nineteen-years-old and given the right to kill enemy combatants, then perhaps the military should not forcibly enlist “children,” and should raise the conscription ages to an acceptable number. Until then, we should assume that soldiers in the IDF know the basics of right and wrong, legal and illegal, and we should hold them accountable to the rule of law that they have sworn to uphold.

Undoubtedly, Sharif was guilty, yet his grave crimes still do not justify Azaria’s extrajudicial and calculated killing. Israel does not have a death penalty policy, and even if it did, Sharif was always due a trial. As Judge Heller reiterated in her reading of the verdict, “treating enemies according to the law is a core part of the rule of law.” The dangerous idea of an Israel just for Jewish people is a slippery slope that can lead to the notion of justice as an exclusive privilege for Jews in Israel. Justice and the law should be applied to all Israelis and Arabs, whether they are Jewish, Muslim, or Christian. There are rules and regulations to ensure that defendants are given due process in court, and Azaria disrupted that balance by killing Sharif. The military court underscored Israel’s commitment to law and democracy by refusing to accept IDF soldiers as de facto executioners.

Of course, prosecuting a soldier for robbery or fraud may have been less controversial than prosecuting on the grounds for manslaughter of a Palestinian. Sharif’s ethnicity alone made the proceedings against Azaria offensive for some, as if to say, why should the death of a Palestinian merit judicial resources and consequences? Is the unnatural death of a Palestinian terrorist worth the conviction of an Israeli soldier? Shockingly, the Israeli military court in this case said yes. And this is why we should celebrate, because here is a shining example of a truly objective and fair trial, where a member of the ruling majority was officially denounced for mistreating a minority.

A culture of permission allows the right-wing to feel that they are entitled to treat minority populations however they please since rarely are there repercussions or denouncements from the government. The military court’s ruling today chips away at that biased armor and hopefully brings awareness of law and equality to the rest of society. The US could do with a similar awakening, where police officer after police officer have shot and killed black Americans. Sandra Bland, Tamir Rice, Walter Scott, Michael Brown, Eric Garner, and other victims were either innocent or nowhere near committing a crime worthy of capital punishment, yet their police killers have never been found guilty. Even when caught on video, a police officer killing a black person is given a huge benefit of the doubt, while the victim is presumed guilty and unworthy of justice because of the color of his or her skin. In this respect, hopefully America will look to its favorite ally in the Middle East and emulate the Israeli military court today that was fearless and firm in its reading of the evidence and the law, and use that same lens to actually try police officers who are quick to kill because they are scared of black people. Holding soldiers and police officers accountable, demanding that they do their job well, and following our founding ideals is not radical. It is simply asking that people act reasonable, and with empathy and intelligence.

There have also been attempts to make the Azaria case an issue of security. Those who believe Azaria hasn’t done anything wrong paint themselves as realists who accept the facts of war and occupation, and they in turn depict those who think Azaria is guilty as softies who will make Israel vulnerable to terrorism. Azaria, however, is not a brave soldier for shooting a wounded terrorist who no longer posed a threat. Allowing soldiers to get away with anything will only inflame those who already think they have been wronged, and it tarnishes Israel’s democratic reputation. It is honestly not a bad thing if this guilty verdict makes Israeli soldiers more cautious; second-guessing shooting a wounded person is a simple task of analysis that all soldiers should be expected to be able to complete. Lives will be saved, faith in justice and the army will be strengthened, and relations between civilian and military populations will have an opportunity to improve if soldiers are encouraged to think before they act, with ramifications following if they don’t.

Throughout his trial, Azaria was seen smirking and laughing with his family in courtroom photographs, his expectations clear that ultimately, regardless of what he had done, the state would set him free. Perhaps this verdict came as a surprise to Azaria fans, but it may prove to be just an obstacle; Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Minister of Culture Miri Regev have already expressed that they support pardoning Azaria. Neither have the legal standing to do so, yet the tide of public opinion in Israel seems to agree with granting clemency to the calm killer. We will see if the courts can withstand the maelstrom again and give teeth to the guilty verdict when it comes time for Azaria’s sentencing.





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