On March 24, Sgt. Elor Azaria arrived at an Israeli military post in the heart of the West Bank city of Hebron shortly after two Palestinians had stabbed a soldier in the arm and shoulder. The two assailants were shot during the attack; one was killed and the other, Abdel Fattah al-Sharif, was wounded and lying helpless on the ground. Sergeant Azaria cocked his rifle and fired a bullet into Mr. Sharif’s head, killing him. He had just told a fellow soldier, “He stabbed my friend and he deserves to die.”
On trial for manslaughter in military court and represented by a battery of top-flight lawyers paid for by donations to a crowdfunding website, Sergeant Azaria gave a different motive for his action. He now claimed that he feared that Mr. Sharif was armed with a bomb and he shot him to protect himself and his comrades. This defense, as well as the others that were put forward (including the claim that Mr. Sharif was already dead when Sergeant Azaria shot him, although he was clearly seen moving in video images of the incident), were all rejected on Wednesday by a panel of three military judges, who called Sergeant Azaria’s defense “evasive” and “evolving and tortuous,” and convicted him.
The judgment, on the face of it, was a victory for Lt. Gen. Gadi Eisenkot, the army’s chief of staff, and for Moshe Yaalon, who was defense minister at the time of the shooting. Both had condemned Sergeant Azaria’s action as soon as images of it were made public by a human rights organization. They declared the killing a violation of the army’s code of ethics and backed the army prosecution. The sharply worded judgment should have put an end to the controversy that has transfixed Israel for almost a year, with right-wing politicians criticizing the army and bolstering Sergeant Azaria’s public support.
The reality is different. Violent demonstrations erupted Wednesday outside the court, and Sergeant Azaria’s supporters declared that they would “turn the country upside down.” The judges and prosecutor now have bodyguards because of death threats.
The Azaria case has exposed a frightening truth about Israeli society. After the soldier’s defense was changed, the court focused its attention on the question of whether he had known that the Palestinian on the ground was powerless to act, or if it was possible to think otherwise. But this was not the issue that interested the public.
In recent months, in delivering lectures on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and holding audience discussions, I have asked hundreds of people across Israel a hypothetical question: Assuming that Sergeant Azaria had stuck to his original story and admitted that he knew that the man lying on the ground presented no danger to anyone, but he had nevertheless decided to put a bullet in his head, should he be acquitted or convicted?
The absolute majority of the people I met believed that he should be allowed to go free immediately. Many even believe that Sergeant Azaria is a hero. Most people in Israel believe that any terrorist, even if he is totally disabled, must not escape alive. The same view is prevalent in almost every discussion of the subject in the social media, from petitions on Sergeant Azaria’s behalf, and from the thousands of vituperative attacks against anyone daring to express a different opinion.
This is an expression of a phenomenon that endangers the future of Israeli democracy: a widespread belief that there are situations in which, as one woman I talked to put it, the “wisdom of the street is preferable to the judgment of a court.” It’s a belief that a distinction can and should be made between the lives of Arabs and of Jews; that a Jewish soldier or citizen can take the law into his own hands and decide that any terrorist, even if he is disabled and a prisoner, must die at his hands, those of a self-declared executioner; the belief that even if an Israeli soldier has killed a wounded Palestinian terrorist, simply for the sake of killing him, he should not be prosecuted. This frightening truth is a defiant challenge to the rule of law, to equality before the law, and is tainted by racism of the worst kind.
Sergeant Azaria did not create this frightening truth. His bullet in Mr. Sharif’s head only exposed it.
Politicians were the first to detect this sentiment pulsing through Israeli society. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who initially condemned the killing, quickly changed his tune after he saw that his greatest rival for right-wing votes, Education Minister Naftali Bennett, backed the soldier. Mr. Netanyahu even called Sergeant Azaria’s father to express his sympathy.
On Wednesday, after Mr. Bennett called for Sergeant Azaria to be pardoned, Mr. Netanyahu echoed the call. In a survey carried out that evening, 67 percent of those polled agreed that Sergeant Azaria should be pardoned. Another right-winger, Avigdor Lieberman — an opposition member of Parliament when the trial opened — showed up at court to express his support for the soldier. Mr. Netanyahu fired Mr. Yaalon as defense minister and replaced him with Mr. Lieberman, at least in part because of his stance on Sergeant Azaria’s case.
The Israeli army is now caught between the hammer of the politicians and the anvil of the public. At first, Sergeant Azaria was questioned by the military police on suspicion of murder; indeed, the wording of Wednesday’s judgment makes it seem as though murder would have been an appropriate charge. Sources in the military prosecution told me that “because of the intolerable public pressure, we thought that” charging him with murder “would lead to an earthquake,” so the charge was reduced to manslaughter.
The Azaria case has demonstrated that the armed forces, which once enjoyed the total backing of the citizenry and few dared to criticize, can now be sacrificed on the altar of ultranationalist ideology. The top brass has found itself confronted by the social media, with the citizens waging war against “the citizens’ army,” as the Israeli military likes to call itself.
Commanders of all ranks, who have since the Hebron shooting been ordered to clarify the rules of engagement for their troops are finding that there is competition to their authority over their subordinates: the stream of pro-Azaria incitement on blogs and social media. In the demonstration outside the court on Wednesday, there were some who chanted that General Eisenkot, the military chief, should beware because “Rabin is looking for a friend,” referring to Yitzhak Rabin, the prime minister assassinated by a right-wing extremist.
General Eisenkot has remained firm, declaring before the judgment that Sergeant Azaria wasn’t “the son of all of us,” as his supporters like to call him. It remains to be seen if the chief of staff, or anyone else, will be able to continue to ensure that justice is done in the Israeli military and that its code of ethics, which Israelis have long prided themselves on, will be maintained. Even if the military succeeds, the trends are worrying: A country, people and society are in a sorry state when the guardians of its democratic values and the rule of law are the officers of the armed forces who are forced to stand up to the mob and the politicians who incite it and kowtow to it.
Ronen Bergman, a contributing writer for The New York Times Magazine and a senior correspondent for military and intelligence affairs at Yedioth Ahronoth, is at work on a history of the Mossad.