Author ORCID Identifier
On Thursday morning, March 24, 2016, Israel Defense Forces Sergeant Elor Azaria killed a severely wounded Palestinian terrorist, Abdel Fattah al-Sharif who was incapacitated when mortally shot. For this act, Azaria was convicted of manslaughter by a military court and sentenced to 18 months imprisonment subsequently reduced by the IDF Chief of Staff, General Gadi Eizencot.
The decision to prosecute Azaria, his subsequent conviction and incarceration, rocked Israeli society reflecting deep fissures on powerful issues, including, but not limited to, what is the normative moral standard expected of soldiers in a non-traditional conflict. The title of this chapter-murderer or hero-is intended to reflect the wide chasm that defined the debate in Israel, which extended well beyond the specific action in the streets of Hebron in the West Bank where Azaria killed al-Sharif.
That is not to diminish the importance of Azaria’s actions, but rather to highlight other aspects of the case that demand our attention. By broadening the scope of issues pertinent to the Azaria case, the intent is to provide a glimpse both into Israeli society and the IDF culture. Both are important when considering the broader consequences of a mis-begotten decision by one soldier, highlighting the impact of one military trial. The incitement by politicians, the cacophony from the public, the constant media attention became a story onto themselves, perhaps over-shadowing the actual trial. Covering the trial required addressing its implications and ramifications on Israeli society; there came to be two stories.
History and precedent are important, facts and circumstances notwithstanding. The question of whether-and where-to prosecute an IDF soldier was previously confronted by the public, the judiciary, and senior commanders. In short, the then Judge Advocate General, BG Amnon Strashnov decided not to prosecute (then) Col. Yehuda Meir for his actions in 1988 during the early stages of the Palestinian intifada but rather to bring Meir before a disciplinary hearing. In response to a petition filed by a human rights organization to the Supreme Court (sitting as the High Court of Justice), the Court ordered Meir’s prosecution before a Military Court which subsequently convicted him and lowered his rank to Private.
Public reaction literally, exploded in the streets where the Military Court is located. Demonstrations were so loud, sometimes so profane, the judicial process was hard pressed to hear itself. The trial became a critical part of the Israeli domestic dialogue; the decision to prosecute inflaming passions and emotions. Lost in the noise, perhaps deliberately, was that Azaria had killed al-Sharif long after the threat he posed had dissipated. We came to learn this because of the video of the event that went viral immediately.
The video depicts the following: al-Sharif lying prone on the ground, soldiers milling about in his presence in a manner clearly suggesting he is not perceived as posing a threat, Azaria exchanging words with a fellow soldier, taking a few steps toward al-Sharif, loading-cocking his rifle, taking aim and firing one shot directed at the head of the wounded terrorist. Careful viewing of the video does not suggest al-Sharif posed a danger to Azaria or the other soldiers, certainly not to Azaria when he approached al-Sharif from behind him while he was lying on his back.
in March to Justice: Global Military Law Landmarks (Franklin Rosenblatt & Navdeep Singh, eds., 2021), BluOne Ink.