Echos of Hebron shooter case: A tightening populist siege on Netanyahu

The case of Elor Azaria, the combat medic, who killed a wounded terrorist, has fed on social alienation and its ricochets have tightened a populist siege on Netanyahu.

Elor Azaria sits to hear his verdict in a military court in Tel Aviv, Israel, January 4, 2017 (photo credit: REUTERS)
Elor Azaria sits to hear his verdict in a military court in Tel Aviv, Israel, January 4, 2017
(photo credit: REUTERS)
HIS CRIME was not Lt. William Calley’s, and his punishment is not that of Sgt. Breaker Morant, but Sgt. Elor Azaria’s sin and verdict echoed both war criminals’ path to celebrity as the infantryman journeyed from anonymity via courtroom drama and public tempest to an anticlimactic 18 months in jail.
A bashful looking combat medic with a crewcut, Azaria committed nothing quite like the Mai Lai Massacre, in which platoon commander Calley was convicted for murdering 22 of at least 347 unarmed Vietnamese civilians slain by US troops in one day in the winter of 1968.
Azaria’s guilt is about one fatality, and his victim, Abdel Fattah al-Sharif, was by no means innocent, having assaulted IDF troops who shot him shortly before Azaria added his own bullet to the already floored and disabled assailant’s head. However, like Calley’s predicament, Azaria’s was fanned by a camera whose shot’s potency soon rivaled his bullet’s, scathing generals and politicians.
The incident in Hebron last March also produced nothing close to the 1902 death verdict and execution of Morant and others for murdering Afrikaner prisoners during the Second Boer War. However, much like the Aussie carbineer whose cinematic resurrection in 1980 sparked scapegoating charges against British officers, the Azaria saga also fingered military brass and rubbed social wounds.
The legal case was actually simple, according to the military court’s verdict.
Azaria, it says, killed al-Sharif not because he felt endangered, but because the terrorist who had just stabbed Azaria’s friend “deserved to die,” as Azaria put it himself shortly after pressing the trigger.
The most damning evidence was a video clip taped by a representative of the anti-occupation NGO B’Tselem, which shows Azaria aiming his rifle and firing at the motionless terrorist from behind other people. Backed by testimonies of Azaria’s commanders that his shot was unsolicited, the footage convinced the court that he shot the wounded terrorist when he was already harmless.
The defendant’s claim that the assailant was reaching for his knife was refuted by a separate video that showed the dropped knife lying a good several meters from its wounded wielder. The court also rejected Azaria’s claim that he suspected the terrorist carried explosives.
Azaria was convicted of manslaughter and improper behavior, but not of murder, because he responded to rather than premeditated what began with the stabbing attack by two terrorists on an IDF patrol. The other terrorist was killed by Azaria’s comrades during the assault. However, the court ruled categorically that Azaria fired with neither justification nor authorization, and blamed him for violating the IDF’s supreme value, known as “the purity of arms.”
HARKING BACK to the 1930s, when the Jews of British Palestine faced the Arab Revolt’s terrorist attacks, the IDF raises its troops on Zionist leader Berl Katznelson’s call in those days: “Let our arms be pure.
We bear arms, we confront our attackers, but we don’t want our weapons stained by innocents’ blood.”
The IDF inherited this quest and made it part of its ethical code, which says that “a soldier will use his weapon only for the performance of his duty, only to the extent necessary and will preserve the human image even while fighting” and “do all he can to avoid harming the lives, bodies, dignity and property of noncombatants and prisoners.”
Concern for the IDF’s purity of arms and battlefield discipline made then-defense minister Moshe Ya’alon respond to the incident immediately and harshly.
“The incident in which an IDF soldier was documented shooting a terrorist minutes after he had been neutralized and lying on the ground is very severe, completely opposed to the IDF’s values and its morality of fighting,” said Ya’alon, who added, “We have to know how to win and remain human.”
Ya’alon’s statement was made after consultation with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Chief of Staff Lt.-Gen. Gadi Eisenkot.
This, then, is how the judges and the defense establishment saw things. Other Israelis saw things completely differently.
“He is a hero,” said Luna Dayan from Holon to Channel 2 TV while dressing her 4-year-old grandson in an Elor Azaria Purim costume, comprising a red beret, green uniform, and plastic rifle with a marksman’s gunsight. “The commanders weren’t there and he assumed command,” said Dayan of her hero.
Dayan’s statement is shared by thousands who refuse to accept the terrorist’s right to life and his killer’s moral blame.
What began four days after the incident with a call by the Beit Shemesh Municipality “to rally for the hero’s release,” and with Chief Rabbi of Safed Shmuel Eliyahu’s statement that Azaria “deserves praise,” soon produced a rally in Tel Aviv’s Rabin Square, where several thousand people demanded Azaria’s release, some carrying signs that read: “Terrorists shouldn’t be neutralized, they should be killed.”
RIGHTIST POP singer Ariel Zilber composed and taped a rhythmic song accusing IDF commanders of “turning their backs to a soldier on the battlefield,” and claiming that “a stench rises from the court,” before asserting “Elor Azaria, we are here with you.”
The conservative newspaper Makor Rishon chose Azaria for its person of the year.
Populist politicians quickly smelled opportunity and soon exploited it.
Avigdor Liberman, now defense minister but then a member of the opposition, showed up outside the court and, while the judges inside were extending Azaria’s arrest, told reporters the trial was “a theater of the absurd.” Education Minister Naftali Bennett said “the attacks on the soldier, who defends all of us, harm Israel’s standing abroad and obstruct the prevention of future terrorist attacks.”
Likud lawmaker David Bitan called for a pardon, a demand that has now been joined by Bennett and Culture Minister Miri Regev. “The verdict’s costs are higher than its benefits,” she wrote in a letter to the defense minister, “I fear the Israeli public will lose its confidence in the IDF.”
The politicians’ agitation cornered Ya’alon, who suddenly found himself fingered by rightists as a closet leftist. In a turn of events that has yet to be fully explored, less than two months after the incident Netanyahu called Ya’alon, a former IDF chief of staff, and told him he was being replaced by Liberman.
Ya’alon was expected to be offered the vacant Foreign Ministry post, but instead resigned, feeling betrayed by Netanyahu and resolving to unseat him. Azaria’s bullet had thus ricocheted to a second, and far larger, casualty.
Having toppled the defense minister, the affair had already spun well beyond the usual reach of a terrorist when it climbed further, to the prime minister, who in the fall made a phone call to Azaria’s tormented father, Charlie, a retired cop who served in the Israel Police for 33 years.
“I UNDERSTAND your distress,” said the prime minister, who then asked Charlie Azaria to trust and cooperate with the military investigation and legal process. “I gave all my life to the state,” replied the father. “I interrogated felons, I brought them to jail, I led them in handcuffs, and now that I see my son in handcuffs…” – but he could not finish the sentence, having burst into tears.
Asked whether he had previously called parents of suspected military felons, Netanyahu said, “No, but I called many parents who were distressed after their sons fell or went missing [in action].”
The analogy drew new criticism. “An unbridgeable abyss separates soldiers who sacrificed their lives for the state and the soldier who is accused of a serious crime,” wrote Yedioth Ahronoth commentator Nahum Barnea, himself a bereaved parent.
“The comparison offers Israelis an unacceptably crooked value scale,” he wrote.
The prime minister understood his mistake and apologized, saying he did not intend to equate the anguish of bereaved families to that of “other distressed parents.” Even so, the bullet that had flown from a sergeant’s barrel through a terrorist’s head to the defense minister’s seat had now reached the prime minister’s door. Netanyahu, unlike Ya’alon, who took the bullet, would try to dodge it by bending to his right.
Netanyahu has joined the calls to pardon Azaria, a measure that procedurally is the prerogative of the Commander of Central Command, Maj.-Gen. Roni Numa, provided that Azaria accepts responsibility for his crime and expresses remorse.
In this regard, Netanyahu is following in the footsteps of Richard Nixon’s response to the public outcry that Calley had been scapegoated by his superiors. Nixon, despite secretary of defense Melvin Laird’s protest, had Calley transferred from jail to house arrest before the courts gradually shrank his life sentence until he was released after only three and a half years of house arrest.
Socially, however, the forces at play surrounding the Azaria affair, unlike those that backed Calley in the US, transcend the political chasm within which they clash.
Hailing from Ramle, a grayish working- class town of 75,000 east of Tel Aviv, Azaria embodies a constituency that is for Netanyahu what low-income whites are for Donald Trump. Unlike Ya’alon, whose response to the incident was shaped exclusively by its moral and military aspects, Netanyahu also considered – and was arguably guided by – the sociology that underpins the voting patterns of Ramle’s overwhelmingly non-Ashkenazi population.
As it did in dozens of such peripheral locations across the country, Likud won 40 percent of Ramle’s votes, and the rest of the Right took another 30 percent in the last general election. From Netanyahu’s viewpoint, this means he is indebted to Ramle’s voters and, at the same time, should fear their defection to nationalistic alternatives like Bennett’s Bayit Yehudi and Liberman’s Yisrael Beytenu. This prospect is underscored by Azaria’s membership in La Familia, the notoriously anti-Arab fan club of the Beitar Jerusalem soccer team.
Moreover, alienating the low-income, undereducated part of Likud’s electorate empowers Likud populists, such as Regev and David Bitan, who team up with Bennett to push Netanyahu to the right of his own preferred positions. This is what happened to the prime minister when his political partners maneuvered the passage of the bill to legalize West Bank outposts; this is what happened when he let Liberman push Ya’alon overboard; and this is what happened to Netanyahu in the Azaria affair itself.
THE POPULIST energies uncorked by the Azaria affair reached a boiling point when demonstrators shouting outside the court warned Eisenkot that “Rabin is looking for a friend,” a thinly veiled death threat.
Police quickly located the shouters and arrested them. However, beyond what meets the eye as a loud but small riff raff sprawl, thousands are convinced Azaria is a military hero and a judicial Dreyfus. Inciting them against the court, which was headed by an Ashkenazi female colonel with a name like Maya Heller and, by extension, pitting them against the civilian judiciary is as easy as it is reckless.
The court seemed aware of these sensitivities when it proceeded from Azaria’s harshly phrased verdict to his surprisingly lenient sentence.
Citing the special efforts Azaria made to become a combat soldier, the distinction with which he served, his felony’s unique circumstances, his lack of a criminal record, and the suffering his family went through, including a stroke his father sustained as the trial progressed – the court made do with an 18-month prison term.
Though Azaria received an added year’s suspended sentence and was also demoted to private, his punishment could well have been closer to its legal maximum of 20 years in jail.
The Azaria affair is not the first war crime trauma Israel has faced over the decades. In 1953, at least 60 civilians are believed to have been killed during an IDF retaliatory operation in Kibya, 30 km northwest of Ramallah; in 1956, Border Guard troops imposing a curfew killed 47 residents of Kafr Kasim, 20 km east of Tel Aviv; and, in 1982, Israeli-allied Christian militias massacred some 800 Palestinians in Beirut.
Azaria’s case does not even come close to these precedents whose victims, unlike his, were numerous and blameless. Even so, the Azaria affair has shaken the political system and touched the raw social nerves that Netanyahu was quick to detect and soothe, but is unlikely to try to heal.