In an analysis of public reaction to the recent videotaped execution of Palestinian Abdul-Fattah Sharif, David Sheen writes the following (emphasis added):
The family of the soldier quickly mounted a public relations campaign, with his sister telling journalists at a press conference at the family home, “Why have you judged him on the scene? … Why are you killing him without a trial?” With seemingly no sense of irony, she added, “All that’s left is for you to execute him, without him even being able to defend himself.”
Hundreds of average Israelis have since taken up the soldier’s cause, protesting across the country in support of him. The municipality of Bet Shemesh officially endorsed and advertised a demonstration Monday night under the headline “a show of support for the release of the Israeli hero,” while the municipality of Ramle has scheduled its own pro-soldier rally for Tuesday night.
You can read Sheen’s full article here. I highly recommend it. The soldier has been identified as Elior Azaria, 19, a medic in the Israeli Army. Sheen discusses some of the racist comments he is said to have posted on Facebook, including expressing his admiration of Meir Kahane. And in 2014, during Israel’s 51-day Gaza onslaught, Azaria reportedly lamented that more Palestinians weren’t being killed: “Bibi, you faggot, what’s the deal with the cease-fire? Fuck them up! … Kill them all.”
As I reportedly previously, Sharif was killed in Hebron last week on the Purim holiday. A video surfaced almost immediately, showing that it was a cold-blooded execution of a man who posed no threat to anyone. Normally, when Palestinian deaths do get reported by the media (which isn’t often), Israel brushes them off, usually with a vague promise of conducting an “investigation,” one that more often than not never happens.
But this incident, along with its capturing on videotape, has thrown Israeli officialdom into a state of blind confusion. Initially, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu expressed official disapproval of Azaria’s action.
“What happened in Hebron does not represent the values of the Israel Defense Forces,” he said, adding that the Jewish state “expects its soldiers to act coolly and in accordance with the rules of engagement.”
Azaria, shortly after the video’s surfacing, was placed under arrest. And views similar to Netanyahu were expressed by Israeli military officials at the time. But then an outpouring of support for Azaria, including from opposition Israeli politicians, prompted an almost complete turnabout on the prime minister’s part.
“Any challenge to the morality of the IDF (Israel Defence Forces) is outrageous and unacceptable,” he said. “The soldiers of the IDF, our children, maintain high ethical values while courageously fighting against bloodthirsty murderers under difficult operational conditions.”
He added: “I am certain that in all cases, as in the current one, the inquiry takes into account all conditions. We must all support the IDF chief of staff, the IDF and our soldiers, who safeguard our security.”
Some in Israel are expressing the view that Azaria is being “hung out to dry,” and indeed it’s entirely possible that his lawyers may argue that their client, in conducting a deliberate murder of a wounded Palestinian, was simply following orders. On October 14, 2015, a month and a half into the intifada, Netanyahu made the following statement in remarks before border police units:
“I know that it requires your discretion, but have no doubt: You have complete backing – complete! – from me, from the Israeli government, and in my opinion from the nation in Israel.”
Another Israeli official caught up in discombobulation is Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon, whose initial response to the Sharif execution was as follows:
“Even when our blood is boiling, we must not allow such a loss of sense, such a loss of control.” He added that while terror must be fought uncompromisingly, “woe to us if we act contrary to our moral values and our conscience.”
But back on October 9, 2015, Ya’alon’s concerns about “moral values” were far less in evidence:
“Right now is it required to respond quickly to any local attack to eliminate the terrorist stabber or the perpetrator stone thrower and the like, immediately, on the spot,” he said.
So last year top Israeli officials seemed very much to be sanctioning extrajudicial executions–the same officials who, following the surfacing of last week’s execution video, suddenly found it necessary to engage in public hand-wringing over the military’s putative “high ethical values.” And the Israeli opposition apparently sensed an opportunity.
“Has anyone heard the soldier’s side of the story?” asked Naftali Bennett, of the Jewish Home party, on his Facebook page. “The country’s leadership was quick to pounce on the soldier who shot the terrorist.”
“The prime minister and the minister of defense are looking for support among the bleeding heart liberals and the representatives of B’Tselem,” said Avigdor Lieberman, of the same party.
Polls of the Israeli public show a majority expressing support for Azaria–how much of a majority depends upon which report you read. Here is what The Guardian says:
According to a poll conducted for Israel’s Channel 2, 57% of Israelis opposed the soldier’s arrest, while 42% described his actions as “responsible.” Only 5% of those polled said they would describe the shooting as murder.
And here’s what Sheen says on the matter:
One day after the incident, an analysis of social media revealed that half of the Israeli public supported the actions of the soldier who killed al-Sharif, while the other half was critical of his actions. Two days later, once Netanyahu publicly changed his tune, a second analysis of social media revealed that 82% of the public now supported the actions of the soldier.
There is also an online petition calling for Azaria to be awarded a medal that so far has gathered more than 56,000 signatures.
Ya’alon’s comments in response to the criticism leveled by Israeli opposition politicians are also striking. He has lashed out against “ministers and members” of the Knessett for conducting what he refers to as an “unprecedented incitement campaign against the army, chief of staff, and senior commanders.” He added that their remarks are motivated by “populist” considerations “at the price of harming the military, as well as Israel’s national resilience.”
Israeli political leaders are obviously distressed and in a tizzy over the contradictions in which they presently find themselves caught up: the need to cater to “populist” sentiments on the one hand, and the desperate urgency to fend off growing international condemnation on the other. Overwhelming public support for a murderer, on the one hand, and growing panic over delegitimization on the other. What can one do?
Netanyahu’s answer seems to be to retreat back into the macabre policy of purloining the bodies of dead Palestinians. On Monday he issued an order that no longer will the bodies of “terrorists” be returned to their families.
It doesn’t make much sense, but then there aren’t a lot of options. In Israel, moral logic is in a state of collapse, and the national psyche is in free fall.