In March, Israeli soldier Elor Azaria killed a wounded Palestinian attacker. After a video of the event surfaced, the military put Azaria on trial. But for many in the country, he is a hero. Who is right?
By Nicola Abé
The sky over the city of Hebron is icy blue on the March morning when Elor Azaria becomes either a cold-blooded killer or a hero, depending on you ask. He is woken up by a soldier rushing into his room — an emergency. Azaria throws his clothes on and rushes to the scene. At 8:22 a.m., he reaches an intersection in the Tel Rumaida neighborhood and sees a comrade lying on the ground with a knife wound. Next to him are two young Palestinians: One of them is lifeless, a puddle of blood spreading around his head; the other is on his back, his arms stretched out, face pale and eyes closed. A knife is lying about four meters (13 feet) away.
Twenty-year-old Azaria helps take care of his injured comrade, heaving him up onto a stretcher. He then walks a few meters, hands his helmet to a comrade and chambers a round in his weapon. It’s 8:29 a.m. when — from a distance of just a few meters — he shoots the Palestinian lying on the ground in the head. Blood flows over the asphalt.
From the roof of a nearby building, a Palestinian father films the incident. That same morning, he uploads the video to Facebook. He also sends it to the news agency Reuters and to B-Tselem, an Israeli human rights organization. In doing so, he sets off a storm.
The video shows the execution of 21-year-old Abdel Fattah al-Sharif, who has likewise since become a hero to many Palestinians — a shahid, a martyr in the fight against Israel. Since September of 2015, when the Palestinian “knife intifada” began, there have been attacks almost every day, with more than 40 dead Israelis and about 250 dead Palestinians. The strategy hasn’t involved many big attacks, instead creating a constant sense of unease. Few of the attacks have received much attention, but this case is different. The upheaval it has triggered has reached to the highest political levels in the country, laying bare deep rifts between the political leadership, the army and the people.
This one death in Hebron is forcing the country to face up to something it otherwise prefers to dismiss. It has confronted the Israeli state with the fact that 50 years of West Bank occupation comes at a price — the fact that oppressing another people has an effect on one’s own society.
Sharif, a carpenter, left his family home at 8 a.m. on that morning in March. He had prayed and then kissed his little sister goodbye on the forehead. Together with his best friend, he made his way to an Israeli army checkpoint. They were carrying two knives and, after passing the barrier, they stabbed one of the soldiers keeping watch. Sharif tried to run away but a bullet hit him in the lower body. He curled up bleeding on the ground and laid there for several minutes, ignored by the soldiers, settlers and paramedics hurrying to the scene. And then Elor Azaria killed him.
‘Not a Hero’
Once the video went public, making headlines around the world, the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) leadership immediately distanced itself from the soldier: “These are not the values of the IDF and these are not the values of the Jewish people,” said a spokesperson. Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon stood before parliament in a rain jacket and said “this is the case of a soldier who has transgressed, and not a hero.” Azaria was arrested.
The message was clear: In a democracy, it’s not acceptable to kill without reason and soldiers must adhere to the rules, otherwise they are no better than the terrorists. The IDF drew a red line: Such an act does not conform to the norms of a constitutional state.
That, though, does not reflect the national mood. On one night in April, thousands of people assembled on Rabin Square in Tel Aviv, including bused in settlers from the West Bank. Signs reading “Free the Brave Soldier!,” and “A dead terrorist can no longer murder Jews” were held aloft. Journalists were not welcome.
A TV host named Sharon Gal, the self-appointed PR rep for Elor Azaria’s family, took the stage. “Nobody can blame a soldier for killing an awful terrorist,” he called into the crowd. “This country is experiencing moral decay.” A delicate woman then walked up to the podium, Azaria’s mother. Her voice shook: “My son, I love you. My heart is breaking because you are not with me here.” A portly man followed, Charlie Azaria, the father. “He is a hero,” he screamed. The crowd cheered and chanted “death to Arabs.”
It was a moment which clearly demonstrated that the red line has become smudged. Many Israelis have taken sides with Elor Azaria — against the military and against international law.
The search for answers leads to Ramla, a poor town in central Israel where Elor Azaria grew up. Surrounded by highways, Ramla is located midway between Tel Aviv and Jerusalem and is known for its many prisons. About one-fifth of the population is Arab. Those with money can afford to buy a row house. The Azarias live in a sand-colored apartment block with a banner hanging above its entryway reading: “Be strong! Don’t break! We, the people, are with you!”
Elor, his name means “light of God,” is the youngest of four. “If only you knew the boy,” sighs David Shovat, 62, a longtime friend of the family’s. He says Elor is friendly, responsible and willing to help. He wasn’t a good student, but he is beloved by his former classmates, obsessed with football and a fan of a racist Israeli rapper named The Shadow.
The Azarias emigrated from Nice to Israel for “Zionist reasons” in the 1970s. They are Mizrahi Jews, descendants of Arabs with Tunisian origins, and don’t belong to the elite that emigrated from Europe and still dominates Israel’s political and economic leadership. Charlie Azaria, his father, served as a police officer for over 30 years and even as a young boy, Elor dreamed of becoming a soldier in the Special Forces. He failed several entrance tests, but was ultimately accepted by the Kfir Brigade. In 2015, the army awarded him a certificate for being the “best fighter in his battalion.” The family, Shovat says, was extremely proud of him.
“If he had a different last name, none of this would have happened,” says Shovat. Many people feel the same and see Elor Azaria as a son of the people. They believe it is unfair that the army and the Tel Aviv elite have turned against him. The case is dividing the Israeli public, with more than half of all Israelis believing that Azaria acted appropriately. He eliminated a terrorist, what is so wrong with that? Regular soldiers have proclaimed their solidarity with him.
Azaria is being tried before a military tribunal in Jaffa, charged with manslaughter, not murder, and two prominent lawyers are defending him. The Besserglick law firm is located in Ramat Gan, an upscale suburb of Tel Aviv. The table in the waiting room is decorated with a black panther made of Plexiglas. Eyal Besserglick, who wears dark glasses that contrast with his light complexion, dances like a boxer in court. He is a criminal lawyer, and an extremely expensive one. His partner, Ilan Katz, is bald and wears a gold chain. A former military man himself, he has been defending soldiers against the army for years. They see their fight as a campaign against a corrupt system — and it’s a judicial coup that will undoubtedly get lots of attention. “I immediately knew that this soldier needed our help,” says Besserglick.
Katz explains why Azaria pulled the trigger: It was about defending the homeland. Azaria, he continues, recognized the potential danger embodied by the terrorist as he writhed on the ground, still alive. He was wearing a jacket and a sweater, strange for the time of year. “An explosive vest could have been hidden underneath,” Katz says. Plus, the only reason an investigation took place at all is becaue of the video. That is the line being taken by the defense.
Jaffa’s military court is located in an old, green-painted colonial building. Soldiers, journalists and Azaria’s family are crowded onto wooden benches, with the defendant sitting in the first row, a muscular young man in an olive-green uniform, chubby-faced with brown saucer eyes. His father is sitting next to him, his arm draped around his son’s back. His mother is sitting directly behind him in the second row, but maintains constant physical contact with her son, stroking his head.
“The terrorist was still alive. He needed to die,” Azaria said after shooting him, his commanding officer, who was at the scene, testifies.