Theater of the Absurd: On Israel's So-Called Purity of Arms

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Azaria and his mother celebrate  the verdict. Photo by M. Hollander/Reuters. On front, kids dress like Azaria for Purim.


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With Israel sliding ever further into right-wing nationalism, nothing encapsulates the ugly divisions and ramifications of that descent like the recently ended trial of Elor Azaria, 20, an Israeli soldier caught on videotape last year shooting an immobilized, already mortally wounded Palestinian in the head as he lay on the ground in Hebron. In what many charged was a show trial meant to prove that the Israeli military, notwithstanding its bloody history of impunity, was in fact accountable, Azaria was charged with and convicted of manslaughter; the military judge argued Azaria, who has expressed no remorse, served as “both judge and executioner,” acts that "damaged the purity of arms" deemed vital to Israel's claim of being a "moral" army.

Prosecutors had asked for three to five years in prison for Azaria, who could have faced up to 20 years; he got 18 months, with a year's suspended sentence and a demotion in rank - considerably less than Palestinian children charged with throwing rocks at cars, who often get prison terms of up to three years. Still, recalcitrant Israeli leaders insisted Azaria be pardoned, viewing the trial as "a sad day" and an attack on that most sacrosanct of their institutions - the military. Said Construction Minister Yoav Galant, “There is a need to remember that even a soldier who made a mistake is our soldier.” So many supportive Israelis hailed Azaria as a hero that for this weekend's Purim holiday - wherein kids dress up to celebrate the victory of the Jews over the Persians - many dressed up as Azaria. Explained one proud grandmother, "He was a soldier who was sent to defend us."

But in the rest of the world, there was far more outrage from those who saw the verdict as "a joke, not justice." The U.N. blasted the killing as "an extrajudicial execution," and Palestinians and human rights groups said it again proves that Palestinians will never get justice from a "democracy of guns" that is simply an "apparatus of state-sanctioned killing." That fury was echoed by many in a divided Israel who think the verdict condones "those who see a hero in every soldier who pulls the trigger on a Palestinian." Many view as unconscionable the actions of a military court, that "most refined perpetrator of apartheid," that over decades of occupation has judged "with severity and cruelty" hundreds of thousands of Palestinians - and that clearly would sentence to life in prison any Palestinian Azaria who shot a Jew.

Instead, writes Ha'aretz' Gideon Levy, Azaria got "a sentence fit for a bicycle thief." Levy is as enraged by "a legal system whose law book is racist" as by the utter hypocrisy of the trial, "the worst show in town, put on by the IDF Theater" - its manslaughter not murder charge and pleas to consider Azaria's “family’s distress," its "cloak of self-righteousness (and) façade of due process," its "rousing verdict (about) the value of the sanctity of life (that ends) calculating the value of a Palestinian’s life as less than that of an (Israeli) dog." Azaria left the court as a national hero in a country where everyone who kills an Arab is considered a hero," he writes. "The court once again told Israelis what they most wanted to hear: Palestinian lives are dirt cheap; they’re on end-of-season sale."

Meanwhile, the Azaria case has become embroiled in a tit-for-tat tangle of appeals - he appealed his conviction, after which most of his lawyers quit, after which the IDF bizarrely appealed for a harsher sentence - even as the crimes of the Occupation go on unabated. Palestinians are killed almost daily for little or no reason, often at checkpoints by trigger-happy Israeli soldiers, and the Israeli parliament just gave preliminary approval to a so-called "muezzin law" aimed at silencing the Muslim call to prayer by banning loudspeakers at mosques - a move one critic calls "a collective hate crime" proving that Israeli leaders have abandoned all pretense of morality.

The charge is echoed by Israeli late-night television host Assaf Harel, known as Israel's Jon Stewart, who used his final monologue after his show was cancelled to issue a blistering indictment of the Occupation. Israel's most impressive innovation, he declares, is "our amazing ability to ignore what’s happening mere kilometers away to our neighbors, a whole people, transparent, like it doesn’t exist." He goes on, "Ever since the right wing took power, more and more voices are warning of apartheid. Are you kidding? Apartheid has been here for ages. Ages. It’s just that we’re on the good side, so it doesn’t really bother us." His final haunting call to his people: "Wake up and smell the apartheid."

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