It was just a couple of minutes of amateur video footage, but it was enough to throw Israel into an uproar. The clip, recorded in the city of Hebron last week, shows an Israeli soldier aiming his weapon at a wounded, unarmed Palestinian man who had been shot after stabbing a soldier at a checkpoint. Now he is lying on the pavement, not receiving any medical attention, while onlookers mill about. Then a soldier calmly lifts his weapon, aims and shoots the wounded man in the head, killing him, execution style.
Foreign observers were shocked by what looked very much like an extrajudicial killing, carried out in proverbial cold blood. Israel’s military establishment condemned the incident, ordering the soldier arrested and charged by a military tribunal. The charge has since been downgraded to manslaughter rather than murder.
Israeli public opinion is solidly behind the soldier, Elor Azaria, with one poll showing 82 percent agreeing that he was justified in shooting the man who carried out the knife attack, 21-year-old Abed al-Fatah al-Sharif. Only 5 percent of those polled agreed the act could be considered murder. The municipality of Beit Shemesh, a bedroom community of Jerusalem, organized a solidarity rally on March 28. There is also a Facebook page titled “We are all with the soldier who shot the terrorist,” with the wall covered in variations on a meme that shows various people, even a couple at their wedding, holding homemade signs with messages of support like “free our soldier” and “we would have done just as you did.”
And just a few days after Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu condemned the shooting, saying it violated the army’s values, he backpedaled and offered comfort to the arrested soldier’s family. In a statement released by the Government Press Office in Hebrew and in English, he addressed the parents of the shooter: “As the father of a soldier, I understand your distress.” Netanyahu’s base consists of people who support the soldier and back his actions in the Hebron shooting. He cannot afford to alienate them.
How to explain the sharp contrast between popular opinion in Israel and abroad? The average Israeli looks at the video and sees a conscientious soldier who acted appropriately by “confirming a kill” on a wounded terrorist who, though immobilized, might still be wearing an explosive device that he has the capacity to detonate. Much of the rest of the world might see a murderer.
Given the shocked reactions from international observers, one would think this was an isolated or rare incident. But that is not the case. There have been several incidents of uniformed Israeli soldiers shooting and killing unarmed Palestinians in the past three or four years alone, and many more that stretch back years and decades. Some relatively recent examples include:
• An incident caught on CCTV in 2014 that shows two unarmed Palestinian teens, aged 15 and 17, shot in the back while walking casually along the road. CNN later broadcast footage that showed Israeli snipers shooting in the direction of the boys. The army did not deny the presence of snipers, but claimed no live fire was used. The pathologist, however, confirmed the boys had been killed by live fire.
• In October 2015 AFP cameramen recorded plainclothes Israeli soldiers restraining an unarmed Palestinian teen at a demonstration and shooting him in the leg at point blank range. The army spokesperson confirmed and justified the incident.
• A 2011 case wherein a soldier shot Abir Aramim, a 10-year-old girl in East Jerusalem, with a rubber bullet. She died from her wounds. A court later ruled that the state must pay the family compensation, but the army refused to charge the soldiers with any crime—even as they acknowledged they had acted in contravention of protocol and orders.
• A 2009 death of a Palestinian man named Bassem Abu Rahmeh, shot by Israeli soldiers directly in the chest with a high-velocity tear gas canister during a West Bank protest. The incident was recorded on video from several different angles, but the army chose not to prosecute the soldiers responsible.
• A notorious incident in 2004, when an Israeli soldier shot a 13-year-old Palestinian schoolgirl 17 times. She died. The soldier was tried and acquitted.
Despite these incidents, there is not a single case of an Israeli soldier being indicted for murder after shooting and killing an unarmed Palestinian civilian. This is also the case for Palestinian citizens of Israel. In 2000, police opened fire at a demonstration in the Galilee, killing 13 Palestinians—12 of whom were citizens of Israel. Not one of the police officers was tried for murder.
One reason Israelis support the soldier is rooted in their fear of Arabs. This fear is the result not just of the random stabbings that have occurred over the past few months, but of years of incitement from the political echelon and the media. In the video, for example, we hear one of the medics ordering his colleagues to stay away from the wounded Palestinian because he might be wearing an explosive device. “Wait until the bomb squad has checked him first!” he yells as he helps load the stretcher carrying the wounded soldier into the ambulance.
The other reason is the hatred of Arabs that usually accompanies fear. Before the soldier aims and shoots his weapon at the wounded Palestinian in Hebron, someone is heard muttering “This terrorist is still alive, this dog.” One should add that shooting someone who might be wearing an explosive device is probably not advisable, given that the bullet might hit and detonate the combustible material. The soldier’s willingness to run this risk raises the question of whether he really believed his target might be wearing a suicide belt. According to a report in the Hebrew version of Ynet, one of the most widely-read news portals in Israel, an officer had already checked and confirmed that the wounded man was not wearing an explosive device.
After he shoots the Palestinian man in the head and kills him, the soldier goes over and shakes the hands of two extremist settlers who are notorious for expressing unabashedly racist, murderous views of Palestinians. This, too, is seen in the video.
One of those settlers, Boston-born Kahanist Baruch Marzel, later tweeted an invitation to a rally for the soldier, along with the claim that the state had stabbed him in the back.
But there are so many videos clips showing Israeli soldiers beating and shooting unarmed Palestinians. Many of them have been reported in the media and many more have been posted to YouTube. Why has this one elicited such a powerful reaction?
The answer lies in the same logic that made the beached body of Alan Kurdi, the 3-year-old Syrian refugee who drowned with his mother and brother while trying to reach Greece, so compelling. Hundreds, probably thousands, of Syrian children had been killed by Assad’s army by that point. Dozens had drowned in the Aegean Sea before the photo of Alan became iconic, and dozens more have drowned since. But the photo of that 3-year-old boy, lying on his tummy in the surf, wearing a red T-shirt, blue shorts, and new shoes, looking very much as though he were sleeping in a toddler’s position that is familiar to every parent, was more relatable than all those images of children’s bodies floating in the water photographed from above, or of rubble-covered children’s bodies pulled from the wreckage of Syrian homes bombed by the government’s air force.
Similarly, the video of the shooting in Hebron feels more immediate because it is in color and in relatively high definition. Most of the footage we see of incidents involving Israeli soldiers and Palestinians in the West Bank is captured on grainy black-and-white CCTV or recorded with a cheap mobile phone. There are other aspects of the footage that are shocking: the coldness of the people standing by as a wounded man lies on the pavement, denied medical treatment; and, of course, the slow deliberation with which the soldier lifts his weapons, aims and shoots a wounded man in the head.
The iconic image of Alan Kurdi did prove a catalyst for change. After it emerged that the boy’s father had a sister in Canada who had been trying fruitlessly to bring them over as refugees, there was a public outcry in that country. This in turn influenced the then- ongoing election, contributing to the ousting of incumbent prime minister Stephen Harper and the election of Justin Trudeau, who immediately liberalized Canada’s immigration policies for refugees, bringing in 25,000 within two months.
But there is little chance that the video of the soldier shooting an unarmed Palestinian in the head will lead to positive change in Israel. Instead, it acts as a pressure valve. Those inclined axiomatically to support the army either claim this was an isolated incident, or justify the soldier’s action. And those who are looking for reasons to express their opposition to Israel’s 49-year occupation of the West Bank will find another means to do so in this video. Not that there is any shortage of such means. But either way, the occupation will continue to grind on.