Shooting to Kill: Israeli Incitement and Impunity

Elor Azaria takes aim at Abd al-Fatah al-Sharif, March 24, 2016. Source: Video footage, B'Tselem.

Early last month, Human Rights Watch (HRW) released a report documenting widespread calls in Israel for the extrajudicial execution of Palestinians suspected of attacks on Israelis. Such calls, the report finds, are made by “senior Israeli officials, including those at the top of the chain of command,” and have widespread support amongst the Jewish Israeli public. This incitement to kill Palestinians is coupled with general impunity for Israeli soldiers who take such action.

Since the wave of Palestinian unrest began in October 2015, Israeli security forces have shot and killed more than 150 Palestinian adults and children alleged to be attacking Israelis. This pervasive use of deadly force, according to HRW Israel Advocacy Director Sari Bashi, is “not just about potentially rogue soldiers, but also about senior Israeli officials who publicly tell security forces to unlawfully shoot to kill.”

The report documents statements by senior Israeli political, security and religious figures who explicitly called for extrajudicial killings of Palestinian suspects, regardless of whether they posed a threat. These include the commander of the Jerusalem Police District, Moshe Edri, who said that “everyone who stabs Jews or harms innocent people should be killed.” The Israeli Police Minister Gilad Erdan concurred, stating, “[E]very attacker who sets out to inflict harm should know that he will likely not survive the attack.”

Avigdor Lieberman issued a similar call, writing on Facebook before he became defense minister that “no attacker, male or female, should make it out of any attack alive.” Members of Prime Minister Netanyahu’s ruling coalition have issued similar statements in the Knesset and in interviews. In March 2016, Israel’s Chief Sephardic Rabbi and head of the Supreme Rabbinical Tribunal, Yitzhak Yosef, gave a sermon in which he stated that it was a religious commandment to kill an alleged attacker. The HRW report also reveals that Prime Minister Netanyahu and other senior government officials have often failed to repudiate statements calling for unlawful use of deadly force.

These directives to kill any alleged attacker not only violate international law but also Israeli rules of engagement. However, when IDF Chief of Staff Maj. Gen. Gadi Eisenkot urged his soldiers to follow those rules of engagement, he was publicly rebuked by members of Netanyahu’s coalition.

Equally alarming is the impunity Israeli soldiers enjoy when they act on such incitement. From 2000 to 2011, this impunity was explicit: the rule was that no investigations were to be opened into the killing of Palestinian civilians. Since then, it has become implicit and investigations into the killing of Palestinians are required. However, these killings are often covered upinvestigations are called off and trials are ended without convictions.

According to a recent poll, 47% of Israeli Jews agreed that “any Palestinian who carries out a terror attack against Jews should be killed on the spot, even if he has been captured and clearly does not pose a threat.” This number increases to 69% amongst respondents aged 18-24 and to 72% amongst religious or traditional Jews.

The recent case of Elor Azaria shined a light on these issues. Azaria was filmed executing a wounded Palestinian, Abd al-Fatah al-Sharif, who allegedly stabbed and wounded an Israeli soldier. As al-Sharif lay bleeding on the ground, Azaria took two steps towards him, aimed at his head and fired a single shot at close range.

At the time, HRW’s Middle East director, Leah Whitson, stated that the video “shows both an apparent cold-blooded murder and numerous witnesses, which should make for a strong legal case. The question is whether Israeli authorities will do what they haven’t done in countless other cases and bring the alleged killer to justice.”

Azaria was brought to trial, but on manslaughter and not murder charges. He was the only security official to face trial for killing a Palestinian in the past year despite the occurrence of more than one hundred instances during that period. In January 2017, he was convicted of manslaughter by a military court. He is still awaiting sentencing but the prosecution is expected to ask for three to five years.

Grocery bags glorify Elor Azaria with a slogan that roughly translates into "Elor Azaria is paying for all of us."
Grocery bags glorify Elor Azaria with a slogan that roughly translates into “Elor Azaria is paying for all of us.”

Immediately after the guilty verdict was reached, Israeli politicians began calling for Azaria’s pardon. Education Minister Naftali Bennet exhibited the sort of incitement that HRW’s report highlighted when calling for a pardon, stating that Azaria “killed a terrorist who deserved to die.” Netanyahu also joined the calls to pardon Azaria. Public opinion polls showed that more than two-thirds of Jewish Israelis also support pardoning Azaria. Just this week, plastic bags featuring Azaria image were distributed at a major Israeli supermarket chain. The chain’s founder, Rami Levy, stated that the supermarket is not responsible for the bag but he embraced their distribution at his stores.

It is quite likely that had Azaria not been filmed executing al-Sharif, he would never have faced a trial. Indeed, Maj. Gen. Uzi Dayan, who testified in defense of Azaria at his trial, suggested that Azaria’s superiors failed him by not covering up the execution. He testified that during his time as head of the IDF’s Central Command, he ensured that inquiries into killings were conducted internally to cover-up incidents and prevent soldiers going to trial.

Given that Azaria was the only soldier to face trial for killing a Palestinian in recent memory, it is clear that little has changed since Dayan left his position in 1998. Cover-up tactics include freezing and withholding the bodies of Palestinian victims until their families promise not to conduct autopsies, preventing the possibility of an impartial investigation. Adalah, a Palestinian human rights organization in Israel, reported last September that between 2011 and 2013, 11,282 complaints were filed by Palestinians to the Israeli Police Investigation Unit. Of those, 93% were closed without an investigation and only 2.7% led to prosecution.

There exists in Israel, therefore, a clear pattern of incitement to commit deadly violence against Palestinians and a widespread desire for complete impunity for those who do. It is apparent that mainstream Israeli society and some of the country’s highest religious, military and political officials do not view the killing of Palestinians as criminal. Instead, the life of Palestinians is expendable in their view.

Matthew DeMaio is an intern at IPS. He is also an editor of Muftah Magazine’s Israel/Palestine and Levant pages.