Azaria would have re­mained anony­mous if not for vi­ral video

Film of He­bron shoot­ing by B’Tse­lem vol­un­teer spread around the globe

Jerusalem Post - - NEWS - • By ANNA AHRONHEIM

It was the vi­ral video that landed an IDF sol­dier be­hind bars for man­slaugh­ter.

Last March, IDF medic Sgt. Elor Azaria was caught on film fir­ing a bullet into the head of Abed al-Fat­tah al-Sharif, a 21-year-old Pales­tinian ter­ror­ist, as he lay wounded on the ground in the West Bank city of He­bron.

While the shot fired by Azaria and his sub­se­quent trial has re­ver­ber­ated in Is­rael and the world, he is not the first IDF sol­dier to be charged with man­slaugh­ter. He was the first IDF sol­dier to be con­victed of man­slaugh­ter in 12 years, af­ter Taysir Heib, a Be­duin sol­dier, was sen­tenced to eight years in prison for killing Bri­tish cit­i­zen Tom Hurn­dall in the south­ern Gaza Strip in 2005.

In Jan­uary, three mil­i­tary judges ruled that Azaria “opened fire in vi­o­la­tion of or­ders. The ter­ror­ist [Sharif] did not pose any threat.” So what made this trial so dif­fer­ent?

Azaria’s case ex­em­pli­fies the grow­ing use of tech­nol­ogy, es­pe­cially of so­cial net­work­ing sites, by those seek­ing to doc­u­ment con­flict. Twelve years ago, when Heib shot Hurn­dall, so­cial me­dia sites were just get­ting off the ground. Face­book was one year old, Youtube had just launched and Twit­ter would not be around for an­other year.

By the fall of 2015, when a wave of vi­o­lence erupted in the West Bank and Is­rael, char­ac­ter­ized by stab­bings and car-ram­ming at­tacks on Is­raelis by Pales­tini­ans, these sites had ma­tured, with mil­lions of users shar­ing and view­ing their con­tent at ev­ery mo­ment across the globe.

The shoot­ing – cap­tured on video by Emad abu-Sham­siyah, a He­bron Arab res­i­dent wield­ing a cam­era pro­vided by the Is­raeli hu­man rights or­ga­ni­za­tion B’Tse­lem – went vi­ral, and the pub­lic up­roar it sparked made it im­pos­si­ble to ig­nore.

Ac­cord­ing to B’Tse­lem spokesman Amit Gi­lutz, the cam­era dis­tri­bu­tion pro­ject be­gan in 2007 and has hun­dreds of vol­un­teers in the West Bank and Gaza who doc­u­ment their ev­ery­day lives and in­ter­ac­tions with IDF sol­diers.

It “shows the power of this kind of footage, of these kinds of im­ages,” Gi­lutz told The Jerusalem Post, adding that “it makes it clear for peo­ple what the lives of Pales­tini­ans are like un­der a mil­i­tary oc­cu­pa­tion.”

Ac­cord­ing to sev­eral polls, there was wide­spread pub­lic sup­port for Azaria, who saw him as a vic­tim, as “ev­ery­one’s son” and on trial only be­cause of his bad luck of be­ing caught on film do­ing what IDF sol­diers are trained to do, pre­vent­ing those who wish to harm Is­raeli cit­i­zens, even if it means to kill them. But many oth­ers, in­clud­ing then de­fense min­is­ter Moshe Yaalon and IDF Chief of Staff Lt.Gen. Gadi Eisenkot, con­demned Azaria’s deed.

It is IDF policy to in­ves­ti­gate ev­ery in­ci­dent that re­sults in the death of Pales­tinian civil­ians in the West Bank, but ac­cord­ing to Hu­man Rights Group Yesh Din, which is­sued a re­port a day be­fore the guilty verdict was handed down to Azaria, of the 186 crim­i­nal in­ves­ti­ga­tions into sus­pected of­fenses against Pales­tini­ans by the IDF in 2015, only four yielded in­dict­ments.

“The fact that in 55 in­ci­dents no crim­i­nal in­ves­ti­ga­tion was con­sid­ered ne­c­es­sary raises doubts about the im­ple­men­ta­tion of Is­rael’s de­clared policy on in­ves­ti­gat­ing civil­ian fa­tal­i­ties,” the Yesh Din re­port said, adding that the data sig­naled an “in­abil­ity and un­will­ing­ness” to ad­dress sus­pected un­law­ful con­duct by IDF sol­diers in the West Bank or Gaza Strip.

Ac­cord­ing to fig­ures re­leased by B’Tse­lem, 99 Pales­tini­ans were shot and killed by IDF troops in the West Bank in 2015, yet only 21 in­ves­ti­ga­tions were opened. In a June press re­lease by B’Tse­lem, the group stated that “since the most re­cent wave of vi­o­lence be­gan in Oc­to­ber 2015, a good num­ber of in­stances were caught on video show­ing ex­e­cu­tions of Pales­tini­ans who stabbed or were sus­pected of stab­bing Is­raeli se­cu­rity per­son­nel or civil­ians.”

While many of the al­leged ex­e­cu­tions of Pales­tini­ans were cap­tured on se­cu­rity cam­eras in­stalled by the IDF through­out the West Bank, the hu­man rights group ac­cuses the army of “tak­ing pains not to make them pub­lic” as well as ac­cus­ing the mil­i­tary’s in­ves­ti­gat­ing au­thor­i­ties of ig­nor­ing them “as a rule.”

“There have been many re­ports since Oc­to­ber of a policy per­mit­ting shoot-to-kill in in­ci­dents in which Pales­tini­ans harmed, or at­tempted to harm, Is­raeli se­cu­rity per­son­nel or civil­ians, even when there is no clear and im­me­di­ate mor­tal dan­ger or if the dan­ger can be over­come with­out re­sort­ing to a lethal out­come. Nev­er­the­less, to date, these cases are hardly ever in­ves­ti­gated, and no civil­ian or mem­ber of the se­cu­rity forces has faced charged for im­ple­ment­ing his policy.”

Al-Sharif was far from the first and is far from the last Pales­tinian to be killed fol­low­ing a stab­bing or at­tempted stab­bing in the West Bank. But it is cer­tain that with­out the footage cap­tured by abu-Sham­siyah, which went vi­ral both in Is­rael and around the world, Azaria would have re­mained un­known.

Less than an hour af­ter Azaria shot Sharif, his su­pe­rior of­fi­cers had in­formed IDF Cen­tral Com­mand of the in­ci­dent and an in­ves­ti­ga­tion into it was al­ready un­der way by mid­day. It was only later that the video came out, turn­ing a case that would have oth­er­wise re­mained quiet into a full blown cri­sis for the army. With an in­ves­ti­ga­tion into the shoot­ing un­der way, Azaria was ar­rested and ini­tially faced a charge of mur­der.

He would have likely been tried in a mil­i­tary court and might have been sen­tenced to prison, but with­out the pub­lic and po­lit­i­cal rift which be­came so ap­par­ent and which has dra­mat­i­cally widened and trans­fixed Is­raeli so­ci­ety. But with a vi­ral video and a grow­ingly po­lar­iz­ing at­mos­phere, the army could no longer keep the lid on the case and a full-fledged pub­lic trial was un­avoid­able.

(B’Tse­lem)

A STILL PHOTO from the fa­mous video shows Sgt. Elor Azaria shoot­ing an in­ca­pac­i­tated ter­ror­ist in He­bron on March 24, 2016.

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