The B’Tselem video starts with an ambulance driving in. A soldier had been stabbed in the occupied West Bank. It was not the first time a Palestinian had stabbed an Israeli – soldier or civilian.
The Israeli Defence Forces (IDF) fighter was injured. He can be seen sitting and adjusting himself on a stretcher before lying down.
His two assailants had been shot by his comrades. One was dead. The other lay on the ground, moving his head, then lying still. Next to him, the injured soldier was wheeled into the ambulance. Other troopers were gathered around. No one attended to the debilitated Palestinian.
One of them was 19-year-old medic Sergeant Elor Azaria. Before his arrival at the scene, both assailants had been checked to confirm they do not pose any threat.
A classified IDF document leaked to Vice News says Mr. Azaria told his friend Sergeant M, “a terrorist that wounded their friend needs to die.” The second soldier tried to calm him, telling him that their friend “will be just fine”.
Mr. Azaria can then be seen walking towards the incapacitated Palestinian, cocking his rifle, and shooting him. Blood runs down the street from 21-year-old Abdul Fatah al-Sharif’s head.
When the company commander questioned him, Mr. Azaria repeated himself. “He’s a terrorist, he needs to die,” he said, according to the leaked document.
B’Tselem, ‘the Israeli Information Center for Human Rights in the Occupied Territories’, hosted the video which was shot by a witness in Hebron.
The website notes that according to Israeli law, “shooting to kill is only permitted when the person is endangering the lives of others. Once the danger is over, he or she must not be harmed.”
“I’ll ask you a question, it’s really important,” Tamir, an ex IDF officer, said to me in an interview. He used to be a Lieutenant and a platoon commander. “What would you do if you were that soldier who saw his friend stabbed a few minutes earlier?”
It was only after he was detained and an investigation was launched that Mr. Azaria changed his version of events. In the document, an investigator states, “To me… he gave a different version: ‘I shot because I felt that there was a threat to life. There was a knife next to the terrorist and also people shouted that he had a bomb on him.'”
The report also states that the first emergency squad to arrive at the scene “checked whether the terrorists were carrying any weapons on them and made sure that they were no longer a threat.”
The fact that Sharif lay medically unattended while he was alive, was also criticised.
“The treatment of the terrorist was bad,” wrote a different investigator. “We need to address the subject of treating terrorists after they get neutralized immediately. We need to increase our moral attention to it and we need to demand our soldiers do exactly what we expect them to do in such events.”
Mr. Azaria’s charges were reduced from murder to manslaughter. He was freed for a week to celebrate Passover with his family.
“Once something that is wrong happens, we do our best to sentence the soldier and send them to prison or give them another punishment,” said Tamir. “It is something that is really, really important to us as a moral and democratic army to do. In a big organisation you have rotten apples, you have people who do unjustified acts, like you have in your college or in your workplace.”
Amnesty International released a report, ‘Trigger Happy’ in 2014 about ‘Israel’s use of excessive force in the West Bank’. It says that since its occupation of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip in 1967, IDF has had a pattern of committing war crimes and human rights violations.
Not only have these not been investigated fairly by international standards, Palestinian victims of such crimes have not been given access to a proper judicial process. According to Amnesty International, this encouraged other soldiers to act with impunity.
The report states that since the First Intifada in 1987, no soldier has been convicted of wilfully killing a Palestinian in the Occupied Territories. They have been rarely prosecuted at all in connection to such killings. Convictions are even rarer, and with charges reduced to manslaughter or lesser offences.
Garry Ettle of Amnesty International UK said in an interview that the investigations are conducted internally. “The military police will investigate, not external bodies,” he said. “There’s no scene-of-crime visits. Evidence is supplied entirely by the soldiers themselves. There’s no civilian interviews.” Ettle is the country coordinator for Israel and Palestine.
When questioned about the apparent leniency of Mr. Azaria’s indictment, Tamir said that the context of the region has to be considered. “What if you were that soldier who saw his friend shouting after he was stabbed and he was bleeding?”
“We live in a really, really difficult neighbourhood. Palestinian terrorists stab soldiers and citizens on a daily basis. So, the situation is tense. I’m not justifying what he did. But it is really challenging and complicated,” he said.
Since early September 2015, there have been a series of lone wolf stabbing attacks by Palestinians against Israelis. International media have speculated if it might lead to a Third Intifada or a third uprising by Palestinians.
Some think that the attacks by individuals were spurred by social media campaigns. Others think it was a response to decades long occupation, human rights abuses and failure of peace talks.
“Despite what you see in the news today, Palestinians always come off worse,” said Sharif in an interview. He is the Chair of Palestinian Solidarity Campaign’s branch in Cardiff.
In stabbing attacks by West Bank Palestinians, 24 Israelis were killed between October 2015 and February 2016. In responses to these attacks and alleged attacks, 116 Palestinians including children were killed by Israeli forces. These figures have been reported by The United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs.
Mr. Ettle said that there have been a number of Palestinian deaths during arrests even when there wasn’t a significant threat to Israeli lives. “That includes shooting people that are said to be armed with knives, at some distance from the soldiers, when they arrive on the scene,” he said.
“These are obviously extrajudicial killings,” he said. “It has happened on a number of occasions with Palestinian and foreign witnesses present.”
“Security measures are obviously necessary in any country for that kind of situation,” he said about the knife attacks. “The manner in which security forces are responding is seen as being excessive.”
In July 2015, Israel introduced a new law. Palestinians could face a jail sentence of up to 20 years for throwing stones at Israelis. Stone-throwing is considered an act of terrorism. One is allowed to use self-defense against terrorists. “And self-defense includes shooting,” said Sharif. “So, Israel has moved to the position where shooting a stone-thrower is legally permissible.”
Sharif says the IDF’s behaviour is part of that. “It may sound surprising but sometimes the IDF works to calm matters down.” He said that Israeli settlers in the occupied Palestinian territories may be restrained by the IDF. “The IDF is actually a bit sceptical about the settlers. The IDF often sees the settlers as pointlessly provocative, leading them into situations of violence.”
“But when it comes to a conflict between settlers and the palestinians, the IDF will always back the settlers,” he added. “They will never assume the innocence of the Palestinians.”
I asked Tamir if the IDF recognise that they have a problem of soldiers committing crimes against Palestinians. Speaking of Mr. Azaria specifically, he said, “This incident, we can say, was a problem, and the IDF recognises it. Mistakes can happen, and we have rotten apples in the army. For sure, it happens, like in every system.”
Philip Luther thinks that the problem goes beyond a few bad apples. Following the same incident involving Mr. Azaria, he said “Israeli forces have a long history of carrying out unlawful killings – including extrajudicial executions – in the Occupied Palestinian Territories with impunity.” He is the Director of the Middle East and North Africa Programme at Amnesty International.
“Amnesty International has documented a number of similar cases during the upsurge in violence that began in October,” he added.
Before my interview with Tamir, I had looked him up on the internet. His name, along with his photo, appeared across various websites in the ‘Cast Lead list’. The list accused him and several other IDF members of committing war crimes in Operation Cast Lead.
That is what the Gaza war of December 2008 was known as to the IDF. The Guardian reports that at the end of those three weeks more than 1,400 Palestinians were dead. At least half were civilians. On the Israeli side, 13 were killed, of which 3 were civilians.
The list seems to have been first published at http://israeliwarcriminals.zzl.org. It included names, images, addresses, identity numbers and positions of hundreds of IDF soldiers and commanders.
The Jerusalem Post reported that the website was removed by its American hosting service Zymic for violating its terms and conditions. The information was then copied and published on several other sites.
The anonymous author mentioned that the information was pirated. Jerusalem Post said that it raised questions about holes in security surrounding sensitive IDF information. Yet a number of soldiers had said they were proud to appear on the list.
But there is no way of substantiating the author’s claims that these people, including Tamir, were involved in war crimes.
Tamir said that this is the technological warfare of the modern age. “These terrorists think that if they target individuals, they will win. Because they will make us look immoral.”
That is exactly what Mr. Azaria’s actions accomplished according to investigators of his case. In the leaked classified document, one of them said that it “severely hurts the IDF and Israel’s image.” Another said, “there is no choice but to denounce and condemn it entirely.”
The most senior investigator condemned Azaria’s actions and ordered a better treatment of Palestinians, terrorist or otherwise. He added, “The shooting serves the Palestinian claims about executions and by this hurts the legitimacy of our actions.”
Yet some think that Azaria’s indictment, even if lenient, is an exception to the rule.
“While it is encouraging that the soldier in the video has reportedly been suspended and placed under investigation, previous Israeli investigations have failed to hold members of the Israeli forces accountable even when there has been clear evidence of criminal wrongdoing,” said Mr. Luther in his statement.
“The Israeli authorities must use this opportunity to end the culture of impunity that has made such killings increasingly commonplace,” he concluded.