Elor Azaria takes a victory lap in Hebron: He’s still not the problem

Azaria, the Israeli soldier who was recently released from prison after executing an incapacitated Palestinian stabbing suspect, gets a hero’s welcome at the scene of the crime. Ultimately, however, he is not to blame. We are.

By David Sarna Galdi

Elor Azaria, the former Israeli soldier who was convicted of executing an incapacitated Palestinian stabbing suspect, returns to the scene of the crime, Hebron, West Bank, July 3, 2018. (Wisam Hashlamoun/Flash90)
Elor Azaria, the former Israeli soldier who was convicted of executing an incapacitated Palestinian stabbing suspect, returns to the scene of the crime, Hebron, West Bank, July 3, 2018. (Wisam Hashlamoun/Flash90)

Watching news footage of Elor Azaria visiting Hebron feels like watching O.J. Simpson partying in Brentwood after his release – it makes you sick to your stomach; it forces you to question your country’s values.

In March 2016, Azaria, then a 19-year-old Israeli soldier, killed an incapacitated Palestinian knife-attack suspect as he lay bleeding on the ground in Hebron. On Tuesday, two months after serving a nine-month prison sentence, he visited the scene of his crime. Azaria was invited by Hebron’s Jewish settlers, a band of 1,000 fanatics whose squatting in the city, supported by the Israeli government, acts as a deadly choke-hold on its 220,000 Palestinian inhabitants. Palestinians’ movement is restricted by checkpoints, their stores are forcibly closed to create “Jews-only” streets, and their children are forced to live in the crosshairs of heavy guns carried by teenagers like Azaria.

In fact, watching Azaria is worse. At least O.J. didn’t rejoice at the murder scene itself. Imagine if, in 1969, U.S. authorities had allowed Charles Manson to return to 10050 Cielo Drive in Los Angeles, to sniff Sharon Tate’s blood. That’s what it felt like watching Azaria.

“It’s fun, after two-and-a-half years, to return here,” Azaria said on camera, smiling ear to ear, to the applause of the crowd of Israeli settlers gathered around him. Fun?! Instead of somber reflection, Azaria retraced his bloody steps, singing and dancing with a crowd of his fans, in the exact spot where he took another person’s’ life.

Azaria’s disgusting victory parade reveals Israel’s rotten underbelly: a hate-filled place where, right or wrong, people delight in murder and climax with schadenfreude at the misfortune of the people they oppress.

Then there’s the hypocrisy, which Azaria highlights again and again. How could “the most moral army in the world” punish a Palestinian girl for slapping an Israeli soldier with eight months in prison, and concurrently punish an Israeli soldier for killing a Palestinian youth with only nine? How could Benjamin Netanyahu, who, on every possible podium, blames Palestinian acts of violence on incitement, not rebuke Azaria’s display of unapologetic, morbid celebration? How can anyone who abhors Hamas’ hate-speech sit by and watch a group of Jews dance on the grave of a dead Palestinian?

I have compared Azaria to O.J. Simpson before. There’s no better comparison for the Israeli who killed a man, beat the system, and garnered the adoration of many of his fellow citizens. And like with Simpson’s trial, Azaria, the criminal, is not the only one to blame for the Kafkaesque spectacle of which he is the center.

Elor Azaria gets a festive reception upon his release from prison for executing an incapacitated Palestinian suspect in Hebron during his IDF service, Ramla, May 8, 2018. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)
Elor Azaria gets a festive reception upon his release from prison for executing an incapacitated Palestinian suspect in Hebron during his IDF service, Ramla, May 8, 2018. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

First, we could blame consecutive Israeli governments for sending a young soldier to risk his life for the sole benefit of a group of extremist settlers. We could blame the right-wing politicians that abused and distorted the Azaria trial to pander to their constituencies. The prime minister of Israel crossed all borders of decency by calling the family of the suspected killer to offer sympathy. Then he fired his defense minister, at least in part for denouncing the soldier/killer and defending the army’s reputation. We could blame the military court that reduced Azaria’s murder charge to manslaughter and handed him a lenient 18-month sentence. We could blame the IDF chief of staff who reduced the sentence, and then the parole board that reduced it even further, despite the fact that Azaria never admitted guilt or even expressed remorse for his actions.

If Azaria and his motley crew had any real media savvy, they would have used the PR opportunity in Hebron to reiterate his innocence by blaming the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the 51-year occupation for the horrible events of March 24, 2016. Azaria is so popular in Israel that with a little savvy, he could translate his celebrity as an Arab-killer into a seat in the Knesset, or at least, a reality TV career.

Israeli soldiers watch as a Palestinian family walks down a street in the occupied city of Hebron, West Bank, October 29, 2015. (photo: Yotam Ronen/Activestills.org)
Israeli soldiers watch as a Palestinian family walks down a street in the occupied city of Hebron, West Bank, October 29, 2015. (photo: Yotam Ronen/Activestills.org)

Azaria is not innocent but he is just a cog in the machine. It is indeed the occupation that’s to blame for the worn-out, threadbare souls of both the oppressor and the oppressed, leading a young Palestinian to decide to attack an Israeli soldier and leading a young Israeli soldier to shoot a Palestinian like an animal and then celebrate over his dead body, like a gladiator.

Ultimately, however, we have to blame ourselves, the Israelis. The colosseum spectators. The armchair occupiers. We have allowed the occupation to grow and distort our logic. We callously watch as Gaza decays. Azaria fired the shot, but we fed him the hateful ideology that made him trigger-happy. We gave him the gun to aim at civilians and sent him to guard Jewish outlaws in Palestinian streets, surrounded by people starved of self-determination and robbed of hope.

If we call Azaria a barbarian, what does that make us?

David Sarna Galdi is a former editor at Haaretz newspaper. He works for a nonprofit organization in Tel Aviv.