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  January 5, 2017

Illusion of Accountability in Israeli Soldier's Manslaughter Conviction

The ruling is an attempt by Israel to maintain the occupation by heading off intervention from the International Criminal Court for crimes against Palestinians, says economist Shir Hever
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Shir Hever is an economist working at The Real News Network. His economic research focuses on Israeli occupation of the Palestinian territory; international aid to the Palestinians and to Israel; the effects of the Israeli occupation of the Palestinian territories on the Israeli economy; and the boycott, divestment and sanctions campaigns against Israel. His first book: Political Economy of Israel's Occupation: Repression Beyond Exploitation, was published by Pluto Press.


SHARMINI PERIES: Welcome to The Real News Network. I'm Sharmini Peries, coming to you from Baltimore.

An Israeli military court convicted Israeli soldier Elor Azariya of manslaughter on Wednesday for the assassination of Fattah al-Sharif. Last March, the Israeli soldier was captured on video executing wounded Palestinian Fattah al-Sharif in cold blood in the Israeli-occupied city of Hebron in the West Bank.

The soldier's court martial has been a controversial and politically divisive situation in Israel. Fattah al-Sharif's father said the Israeli verdict pronounced him guilty and that is a good step, "Not bad," he said. "We hope that the sentencing will be fair."

On to talk about the court martial with us is Shir Hever, a journalist with The Real News Network based in Heidelberg, Germany. Thanks for joining us, Shir.

SHIR HEVER: Thanks for having me, Sharmini.

SHARMINI PERIES: Shir, the video which was taken on March 24th of last year, clearly shows Elor Azariya shooting Palestinian Fattah al-Sharif in cold blood. Shir, explain what happened during that shooting and why the soldier was charged with manslaughter and not murder, which would have carried a heavier sentence?

SHIR HEVER: Well, the event that happened was that Israeli soldiers standing in the city center of Hebron with their guns claim that Fattah al-Sharif attacked them and attempted some kind of attack against them. There was never a trial. He was a suspect, but they had already shot him and he was lying on the ground bleeding when Elor Azariya walked up calmly to him eleven minutes later and shot him in the head and killed him.

So, obviously, a case of premeditated murder, but in the Israeli context, it's just not possible for Israeli soldiers to murder Palestinians. Not legally possible. It just never happens. Every time an Israeli soldier kills a Palestinian, they're only charged with manslaughter, or a shooting against regulations, or some other kind of trumped up charge -- and there is just no precedence for Israeli soldiers being charged or convicted of murder, except for extreme cases more than 30 years ago. And I think that is part of an unwritten policy -- there's no specific law in Israel that says that soldiers cannot be charged with murder -- but it's just an unwritten policy which gives a free hand to Israeli soldiers.

SHARMINI PERIES: In the last year, Shir, more than 240 Palestinians have been killed by Israeli soldiers. Other than Elor Azariya, many others have not really been held accountable for their actions. Why is it that this case was court-martialed and not the others?

SHIR HEVER: The reason is very simple. This was caught on video. There was a camera and so there was no way to deny the fact that Elor Azariya is the perpetrator.

SHARMINI PERIES: And what makes this particular killing of Fattah al-Sharif so politically fuelled when it seemed very plain through the video that he should be held accountable?

SHIR HEVER: Well, the defense of Elor Azariya in the court was very confused. Actually, it was a terrible defense, trying to say that maybe it was not Elor Azariya who killed him, and maybe Fattah al-Sharif had a suicide belt strapped to him, and other such arguments that were easily disproved.

But the main issue here is an ethnic division within Israel, because most of the killings of Palestinians by Israelis are done by pilots, aircraft pilots or drone operators, by high-ranking officers, and almost all of those are Jews of European descent, otherwise known as Ashkenazim. Elor Azariya comes from a more lower socioeconomic strata, and his family is of Arab descent. And the fact that he was charged brought a lot of anger, which is really ethnically based, people saying, "How come those Israeli elites are allowed to get away with murder, but we are not?" And I think that's why a lot of people also came to support him by actually trying to transform Israeli ... into a kind of militia, by which the idea that Palestinian lives are simply free for the taking, is something that they have learned from the Israel government, and why should they be punished when they just follow the lead of the Israeli elite?

SHARMINI PERIES: But... and Prime Minister Netanyahu and the current Minister of Defense Lieberman specifically rushed to the soldier's defense. Why did they do that?

SHIR HEVER: Well, they gained very easy populism points, but because they joined this mob saying, claiming that Elor Azariya is the children of all of us, a sort of example of how an Israeli soldier should act, in other ways, should commit murder. And Netanyahu compared the family of Elor Azariya to the Reeves(?) family of a soldier who died in battle, even though Elor Azariya is alive -- and to his own family, because Netanyahu's brother also died in battle. And so this kind of populism was a very quick way for some Israeli politicians, most notably the current Minister of Defense Lieberman, to gain popularity and to raise into high positions of power.

SHARMINI PERIES: And just outside of the courtroom, when the soldier was pronounced convicted of manslaughter, there were huge demonstrations outside the court. In fact, let's have a look at this young woman who is speaking up, saying that this young man, as a soldier, was defending them, meaning the citizens of Israel.

(video clip)

WOMAN: I think that this soldier came to protect about little children, about families, about parents. This guy came to do an attack to hurt about these families. This soldier is a hero.

(end video clip)

SHARMINI PERIES: So, explain the kind of support the soldier was receiving and why people were feeling that he was actually defending them.

SHIR HEVER: Very extreme right groups within Israel have organized this demonstration in front of the courthouse and actually got into violent confrontations with the police because, for them, this court case is extremely important. They use it to try to create a carte blanche for all Israeli soldiers, for Israeli colonists, for Israeli police to simply fire their weapons whenever they want against people who are not Jewish -- against Palestinians. For them, the idea that Elor Azariya killed a Palestinian justifies everything.

And so, it doesn't matter if he did that according to regulations, it doesn't matter if he was obeying orders or just did it of his own initiative. It doesn't matter if that Palestinian threatened him or not. The important matter is that he was Jewish, and the Palestinian was not -- and that gave him the right to use his weapon. And that's why these demonstrations happened, because they're trying to basically justify ethnic cleansing and mass killing of Palestinians.

SHARMINI PERIES: And then why did the former Minister of Defense Ya'alon, and other commanders such as Eizenkot, I think, who spoke out against him, why did they do that?

SHIR HEVER: I think this is the main issue, actually -- the fact that there are senior commanders of the Israeli military and the former Minister of Defense who were trying to curb this process which they call a beastification of the Israeli military, the army turning into a beast. What they're saying is that this idea of the Israeli military becoming a militia where soldiers can just open fire on Palestinians at will, without obeying an organized structure of command, without a clear tactic or strategy for the use of force, is going to be destructive for the Israel military and for the possibility of the government to have any policy at all.

Those kind of voices, of course, it has to be said -- Ya'alon, Eizenkot -- these are senior military brass of Israel, are people who are architects of the Israeli occupation of the Palestinian territory. They are not saints, they are actually war criminals, but they also understand that if the military goes out of control, then the whole project can collapse. The point is not to use as much violence as possible, but they try to use violence in the areas in the ways that promote their agenda. And Ya'alon was trying to say that, and trying to say, "Well, we have to stop the army from becoming a beast," and people interpreted that as if he was saying Elor Azariya is a beast because he is a Jew of Arab descent, so this was a racial slur against him, which means that he's somehow less human than a Jew of European descent. And Ya'alon actually lost his job. He was fired by Prime Minister Netanyahu. And I think that re-accelerates the process of the Israeli military becoming a militia.

SHARMINI PERIES: Right. Now, this particular case, although it's only one of hundreds of Palestinians that have been killed, has a political significance, particularly internationally -- those who are looking at Israel now and the gross human rights violations that are carried out against Palestinians. So this has larger political significance internationally. Explain that, and does this mean that the Israeli military now will have less control over the occupied territories if they're looking at convictions of this sort?

SHIR HEVER: Well, the Israeli military court in this case had absolutely no choice but to convict Elor Azariya. The evidence was overwhelming. I think they didn't want to convict, and actually in the speech the military attorney said, "This was not an easy decision for us. We were not happy about the result. We did it very reluctantly." They were reluctant to convict, but they knew that if they do not convict Azariya, the result will be that the International Criminal Court in The Hague will have a very strong case to say there is no justice system within Israel, for Israeli soldiers. There is no accountability. When there is no accountability, that implies that the International Criminal Court of justice has jurisdiction over these cases, and then any Israeli soldier, any Israeli colonist, would have a problem traveling around the world. They could be extradited, they could have charges pressed against them on suspicion of committing war crimes.

So they had to convict in order to preserve the illusion that there is some kind of accountability for Israeli soldiers. But, like I say, it's an illusion because, in fact, he was only convicted of manslaughter, even when it was absolutely clear that he committed murder. And this court case is an attempt to help the Israeli military continue to be able to control Palestinian territories but, in fact, this turning of the Israeli military into a militia, and the increasing calls for the International Criminal Court in The Hague to step up and to start holding Israeli soldiers and officers accountable, that is something that threatens the Israeli control quite a great deal.

And the decision of the UN Security Council that was not vetoed by the Obama Administration was immediately interpreted within Israel as increasing that very risk. And when Israeli soldiers believe that they are not protected, and that their next vacation in Europe they could be arrested, then we will see a very large number of Israeli soldiers and officers abandoning their posts, refusing to serve in the occupied territory, refusing to participate in occupation, and that would be a decisive blow against that occupation.

SHARMINI PERIES: All right. Very interesting development, and Shir, I thank you so much for joining us today and giving us such good analysis. Thank you.

SHIR HEVER: Thank you very much.

SHARMINI PERIES: And thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.




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