The Elor Azaria sentence and the failure of democracy and justice in Israel

Eleven months ago, B’Tselem published a video clearly showing an IDF soldier, Elor Azaria, carry out the illegal and extrajudicial execution of a disarmed, wounded, and supine Palestinian, Abdel Fattah al-Sharif, who had stabbed a soldier in Hebron. Before proceeding any further, one would do well to watch the footage of this incident.

The video clearly shows al-Sharif on the ground, incapacitated, and no longer posing any threat. Al-Sharif is later shot from two meters by Azaria in what can only be described as an illegal, extrajudicial execution that goes against international human rights standards, Israeli law, and the IDF code of ethics.

Another aspect of the video highlights one further reason to be worried: other soldiers in the vicinity remain completely unfazed by Azaria’s illegal execution of a neutralized Palestinian. The immediate lack of reaction by the soldiers around Azaria worryingly suggests a climate of impunity and a pattern of extrajudicial killings. Indeed, in October 2015, Philip Luther, Director of the Middle East and North Africa Programme at Amnesty International, noted that

[…] we are increasingly seeing Israeli forces recklessly flouting international standards by shooting to kill in situations where it is completely unjustified. Israeli forces must end this pattern of unlawful killings and bring all those responsible to justice.

More troubling than this single incident — as troubling as it is — is the suggestion of a pattern of “unlawful killings” and a general climate of impunity.

In the wake of the Azaria killing, Luther stated that “[the] shooting of a wounded and incapacitated person, even if they have been involved in an attack, has absolutely no justification and must be prosecuted as a potential war crime.”

This, of course, did not happen. Instead, from being initially investigated for charges of murder, which were soon downgraded to manslaughter, of which he was found guilty on January 4, 2017, Azaria has now been given the mind-bogglingly scant (in relation to the gravity of his crime) sentence of 18 months. As a reminder, the maximum sentence for manslaughter is 20 years, although the prosecution only sought 3-5 years. For comparison, Palestinian youths have received much heftier sentences for throwing stones.

Despite the fact that Azaria’s culpability can no longer be of any reasonable doubt, he is given a sentence that mocks the severity of his crime, public opinion is on his side, and segments of the political class still pronounces itself in favor of his pardoning (and those who refrain nevertheless call him an “exemplary soldier”). These are signs of a failure of democracy, law, justice, and, quite simply, fundamental ethics.

But one ought not to be too surprised since the sentence likely represented a comprise between the need to issue some form of punishment and the need to mediate the massive outpouring of public support for this extrajudicial killing. Perhaps Professor Asa Kasher, who led the writing of the IDF code of ethics, said it best last month:

The rule of law is undermined when professional ethics and legal justice are overruled by pandering to the street. And democracy itself is undermined when politicians are constantly self-promotional election mode. Any effective defense of Israel as a genuine democratic nation-state of the Jews ought not to be based on a fleeting bid for popularity, but rather based on a defense of the moral principles of justice, sanctity of human life and restraint of force, as expressed in the IDF Code of Ethics.

In the context of a culture of impunity, a pattern of extrajudicial killings, and a political class pandering to public support of a soldier who has betrayed the code of ethics of his own army, to speak nothing of international human rights, the prognosis for the future of Israel as a liberal democracy is dire.

About the Author
Adi S. Bharat is a student of literature, society, and politics, whose research interests include twentieth and twenty-first century French literature, far-right politics in France, and religious and ethnic minorities in France.
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