The extraordinary case of Sergeant Elor Azaria, the Israeli soldier convicted of manslaughter for shooting a Palestinian assailant in the head as he lay critically wounded on the ground, speaks to the very heart of of what the state of Israel is all about.
While I’m well used to the passion displayed by callers to my weekday morning radio phone-in show regularly on almost every Middle East issue from migration to Manischewitz, this case got the emotions going like few others.
Whether caller after caller were demanding Azaria spend a lifetime behind bars or supporting his immediate release from the cells and almost a statue to be cast in his honour, the grim reality of the situation hit home.
No one could support the fatal consequences of the action taken by Azaria, who was 19 at the time of the shooting in the occupied West Bank city of Hebron in March.
The sorry episode began when two Palestinians stabbed and wounded an Israeli soldier at a military checkpoint and the IDF then killed one and wounded the other, Abed al-Fatah al-Sharif, 21, leaving him lying and bleeding on the road. Approximately six minutes later, Azaria arrived and then five minutes after that, a full 11 minutes after the initial attack, Azaria shot defenceless Sharif as he lay motionless.
Azaria subsequently said he feared Sharif might have a bomb under his jacket, yet the court heard he offered no such warning to his colleagues and medical staff who were close by.
It is to Israel’s credit that this case has had so much public discussion. Can you imagine any other country in the region initiating criminal proceedings against one of its soldiers in similar circumstances? Let alone providing detailed video footage and unlimited media coverage of the subsequent trial and verdict.
Israel insists on carrying on in a wholly democratic way and therefore serves as something of a beacon in a grotesquely distorted region. However, this means it cannot blink when it comes to Azaria’s sentencing, which is currently scheduled for Sunday.
The military high command denounced the shooting and called it a grave breach of conduct. But Israeli society was divided. With the backdrop of continued random Palestinian attacks, the sentiment from many on the right as well as many parents of children of a similar age currently serving was to label the soldier a hero.
This is wrong. Just as Benjamin Netanyahu was wrong to support the notion of a pardon in a Facebook post, the military’s code of conduct makes it absolutely plain precisely what accepted procedure is –but it’s worth noting there’s a gulf of difference between reading the code in safety as opposed to being on the front line, and potentially facing people who would slit your throat as soon as look at you.
However, the instruction is simple. Assailants can be incapacitated, but once neutralised, they cannot be killed. Some commentators have said this case has highlighted the problem of excessive force, but that argument is fatuous. There can be no doubt excessive force was used.
It is fortunate and correct that the initial charge of murder was dropped, not least as that would have carried a possible 20 year jail term.
However, if Israel is to continue to abide by its remarkably dignified, and at times deeply difficult tradition, of always attempting to do the right thing then Azaria must spend a brief time behind bars. Anything less would demean the country’s position as the only functioning democracy in the region.