Elor Azaria and the army of the periphery

From the army’s perspective, Azaria’s guilty verdict ostensibly answers the critique that it is unable to deal with soldier violence against Palestinians — or that it doesn’t want to. But there is one reason and one reason only that the lowly soldier was indicted to begin with.

Israeli soldier Elor Azaria in court to hear the verdict in his manslaughter trial for shooting an unarmed Palestinian attacker in the head, Janary 4, 2017. (Miriam Alster/FLASH90)
Israeli soldier Elor Azaria is embraced by friends and family in court before the verdict was read in his manslaughter trial for shooting an unarmed Palestinian attacker in the head, Janary 4, 2017. (Miriam Alster/FLASH90)

An Israeli military court handed down a guilty verdict Wednesday in the manslaughter trial of Elor Azaria, an IDF soldier who shot and killed an incapacitated Palestinian assailant in March of last year. The high-profile trial polarized the country, pitting Israel’s political class against current and former army generals. Much of the IDF’s top echelons decried Azaria for firing a bullet into Abdel Fattah al-Sharif’s head — 15 minutes after the latter was shot and wounded in an attempt to stab soldiers in the occupied city of Hebron.

Much will be said and written about the implications of the verdict. For now, here are some initial observations and takeaways:

1. Azaria was arrested and brought to trial for one reason and one reason only: B’Tselem volunteer Emad Abu-Shamsiyah caught the shooting on camera. The video sparked controversy in Israel and across the world, momentarily shifting the public’s attention to the costs of the Israeli occupation — certainly for Palestinians but also for Israeli society.

In an interview with Al-Monitor, Abu-Shamsiya lamented that Azaria had been turned into a national hero by many segments of Israeli society. “I know that without the footage,” he said, “no one would have been arrested and life would have gone on as usual. After the shooting no one standing around there was bothered by what they had seen.”

2. Azaria’s conviction is a rare exception to the rule. In the vast majority of cases, the army tends to grant impunity to soldiers who kill or harm Palestinians.

In 2015 alone, Israeli human rights organization Yesh Din found that the IDF opened a total of 186 criminal investigations into suspected offenses committed by soldiers against Palestinians. Of these investigations, 120 files were closed, seven led to disciplinary action, and only four (3.1 percent of all files in which procedures were concluded) led to indictments. Twenty-seven of those files (15 percent) were opened following the death of Palestinians at the hands of Israeli soldiers.

There are countless cases of impunity. I recommend reading through John Brown and Noam Rotem’s excellent series, License to Kill, to gain a more complete picture of how the military allows Israeli soldiers who have shot and killed unarmed Palestinians to evade justice.

Let’s see what sentence Azaria is given, and whether or not he is pardoned before celebrating a military justice system suddenly delivering justice.

3. Wednesday will go down as great day for both Israel’s military establishment and its judicial system. From the army’s perspective, Azaria’s guilty verdict ostensibly answers nearly all of the critiques leveled at it by human rights groups, namely that it is unable to deal with soldier violence against Palestinians — or that it doesn’t want to. Government ministers and campus hasbara warriors alike will be waving around Azaria’s conviction for years to come.

4. The celebration, however, may be short-lived. Both the political establishment and the army are undergoing internal changes. The far-right has been victorious in entrenching the occupation, while limiting the power of the judicial system — the same one that handed down the Azaria verdict, and is seen by many as hindering soldiers’ ability to act decisively in crucial moments. For now, the verdict may dissuade soldiers from taking the law into their own hands (and that’s a good thing) — but it also means that the Right may feel more emboldened than ever to alter the status quo for the worse.

The dismissal of Defense Minister Moshe “Bogie” Ya’alon, a kibbutznik who belongs to Israel’s classic military elite, and his replacement with Avigdor Liberman — an outsider with little military experience — is a harbinger of things to come. The days when the Israeli elite, which was once so adept at convincing the world that the occupation was a temporary security measure, and that Israel could be a democratic state while also maintaining a military dictatorship over millions, are coming to an end. From here on out, the mask is off.

5. Elor Azaria has been known to make racist statements on his Facebook page and is an open supporter of the extreme-right Kahanist movement. He served in the Kfir Brigade, one of the most notoriously violent infantry units in the occupied territories. Those are the dry facts. But let us also take a few steps back and examine just how and why Azaria came to serve with the Kfir Brigade in Hebron in the first place.

Azaria was born to a low-income Mizrahi family in Ramle, a working class mixed city in the heart of the country. He joined a brigade mostly made up of people who looked and spoke like him — people who, merely because of their ethnic background and where they grew up — would always belong to what Israeli sociologist Yagil Levy calls the “army of the peripheries.” As the demographic makeup of the country shifts, so too does the makeup of army’s infantry — those who are tasked with carrying out the day-to-day maintenance of Israel’s military dictatorship. This maintenance, which includes manning checkpoints, carrying out night raids, patrols, breaking up protests, etc. inevitably puts soldiers in situations that could easily turn into conflagrations, leading them to potentially commit immoral and illegal acts.

Thus the “classic” Israeli soldier — brave, white, decent — has been replaced with what photojournalist Mati Milstein and Mizrahi activist Tom Mehager term “black labor” — soldiers who hail mostly from Israel’s poorer segments. They are Mizrahi, Ethiopian, Druze, Bedouin. Put bluntly: they are not Ashkenazi.

Azaria’s staggering, near-total support among the Jewish Israeli public is a sign that this demographic shift has wide-ranging social repercussions. Many viewed the outrage over the mere fact that Azaria was even put on trial as a revolt against the old military elites. The rise of a new class of politicians such as Miri Regev, who views herself as the torch-bearer of the Mizrahi struggle (following the verdict, Regev immediately asked President Reuven Rivlin pardon Azaria, although Rivlin later clarified that she has no standing to do so), means that the army of the periphery will only grow more emboldened. The rift between the old military and judicial elites on the one hand, and a periphery historically scorned by the liberal elites and now supported by the far right, will only deepen. And in turn, so will the control over millions of Palestinians.