By Nathan Hersh
August 16, 2016
For decades, Israel has prided itself on its anti death-penalty stance. But in the past year, calls for the use of capital punishment have started to rise again, heightened by the trial of Elor Azaria, a sergeant in the Israel Defense Forces. Sergeant Azaria has been charged with manslaughter for killing Abdel Fattah al-Sharif, a Palestinian. Mr. Sharif had stabbed an Israeli soldier, and been shot and wounded by the soldier’s colleagues. In a video of the event, he can be seen lying supine and still for several minutes before Sergeant Azaria calmly points the gun at his head and fires.
The sergeant, who has pleaded innocent, claims that Mr. Sharif still posed a threat and that he acted to eliminate the danger. While many Israelis, including the commanders of the Israel Defense Forces, have responded in outrage, others have said that Sergeant Azaria’s actions were justified and have called him a hero.
The support for Sergeant Azaria coincides with a renewed debate on the death penalty in Israel. Avigdor Lieberman, the defense minister recently proposed a bill asking Israeli courts to enact the death penalty in terrorism cases. It would have essentially applied only to Palestinian assailants.
Mr. Lieberman campaigned in last year’s elections on a promise to apply capital punishment to convicted terrorists. He agreed to a partial implementation of his original bill, which had been rejected by the Knesset, when he negotiated his terms for joining Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s coalition in May. The recent attack by Mr. Sharif and Ramzi Aziz al-Qasrawi, a fellow Palestinian, seemed to play into his hands by reinforcing an increasingly widespread yet simplified conception of the conflict: that Palestinians are inherently violent and will never stop trying to kill Israelis.
It’s not hard to pinpoint the root of such a mind-set. It starts with the military education that almost all Jewish Israelis receive beginning in high school. Later, when Israeli teenagers are drafted, the military requires that soldiers view every situation through the lens of security, looking for any possible source of danger.
I learned that crucial lesson when I was drafted into the military in 2009. Our training demanded that we approach threats as immediate, not long term; nuanced thinking was dangerous; political considerations were irrelevant; and Palestinians were security risks until they had been proved safe. While serving in the West Bank, my fellow soldiers and I were kept safe by this type of vigilance. We remained alert to any potential security threats. We paid little attention to innocuous Palestinians or to their needs and concerns.
Despite this security-first outlook, the military’s strict rules of engagement, which Sergeant Azaria appears to have flagrantly broken, are intended to restrain soldiers. As a result of his trial, he is a martyr for the movement that sees those rules as a hindrance to the military’s mission, just as it sees Israel’s avoidance of capital punishment as a hindrance to the state’s fight against terrorism.
But capital punishment for Palestinian assailants will not help fight terrorism, nor will it solve any aspect of the conflict. It will not deter future attacks, as the promoters of the legislation had claimed. It is a thoughtless, vengeful reaction to a problem many Israelis increasingly believe is unsolvable. Mr. Lieberman’s proposed legislation is a sign of the disease of intractable conflict metastasizing.
Part of the solution is bolstering the counternarrative that seeks peaceful cooperation between Israelis and Palestinians. But the same movement that calls for death to terrorists accuses pro-peace nonprofits of betrayal. Last month, the Knesset passed legislation known as the N.G.O. bill, which targets Israeli human rights organizations with disproportionate scrutiny compared with other nonprofits. Last year, a popular video called the leaders of four Israeli human rights organizations “foreign agents.”
One of these organizations, B’Tselem, provides video cameras to Palestinians in the West Bank so they can film human rights violations. B’Tselem released the widely viewed video of Sergeant Azaria’s alleged misconduct. As the nonprofits’ work is attacked and as its leaders receive death threats, the United States should increase its support to these groups, given their crucial role in a healthy democracy.
One of the beacons of that democracy has been the state’s refusal to carry out capital punishment, which is allowed in Israeli law during wartime and for certain crimes. Since its inception, the country has executed just one person: the Holocaust leader Adolf Eichmann, who was put to death in 1962. But like many countries that have recently faced deadly terrorist attacks, Israel has been inching ideologically further to the right.
I recently overheard a conversation among soldiers about Sergeant Azaria’s trial. When someone noted that what the sergeant did was against the law and reflected poorly on the military, several soldiers accused him of being a leftist.
This fits with Sergeant Azaria’s narrative of his arrest and prosecution. He claims that his indictment is a political move to pacify the left, in which he includes the military and the media. In his first court testimony, he blamed Moshe Yaalon, the recently ousted defence minister, and Lt. Gen. Gadi Eisenkot, the chief of staff of the Israel Defense Forces, for throwing him “to the dogs for fear of the journalists,” who had showed “a biased film clip.”
To be sure, the public support campaign for Sergeant Azaria — which includes Mr. Lieberman, who, before becoming defence minister, visited him in court — is devoted to defending the individual at least as much as his actions. His defenders paint him as “our boy,” and there is some truth to this. Sergeant Azaria is a young man with a narrow perspective, a share in the national grief and a rifle. His actions, inexcusable as they appear to be, are a result of 50 years of meeting terrorism with occupation. They also reflect an un-abating mind-set that is changing the nature of Israel, promoting vengeance and vigilantism in place of law and order.
Nathan Hersh is a former managing director of the social justice nonprofit Partners for Progressive Israel.