Why a Broad Section of the Israeli Public is Pushing Netanyahu to Defend a Murderer Caught on Video

News & Politics

The apparent execution of a Palestinian attacker in the largest city in the West Bank by an Israeli occupation soldier on the Jewish holiday of Purim has sent shockwaves throughout the world, after a video of the incident went viral. Faced with what would seem to be indisputable evidence that an Israeli soldier shot and killed 21-year-old Abed al-Fattah Yusri al-Sharif more than 10 minutes after he was immobilized and no longer posed any physical threat, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu now finds himself in an awkward bind of his own making.

In recent months, top Israeli political and religious leaders, including Prime Minister Netanyahu, Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon, centrist Yesh Atid party leader Yair Lapid and Chief Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef, have repeatedly encouraged Israeli soldiers to execute suspected Palestinian attackers at the scene. About two-thirds of the Palestinians who have attacked Israelis since the current wave of violence began in September 2015 were killed on the spot by Israeli security forces.

But the contents of this viral video stood out from dozens of others. Before al-Sharif is shot, Israeli soldiers can be seen passing by his body without apparent concern that they might still be in danger. After al-Sharif is shot, Israeli soldiers can be seen carrying on with their routine activities. More than any other video that has gone viral since September, this one seemed to reveal that Israeli soldiers who kill Palestinians are not rotten apples, but rather the harvest of seasonal incitement.

Anticipating a flood of criticism, Netanyahu momentarily abandoned his regular arsenal of racist rhetoric, and with it, the soldier in question who had acted on what Israelis call “the spirit of the commander.” Soon after the release of the video on Thursday, Netanyahu repudiated the soldier’s actions, saying, “What happened in Hebron does not represent the values of the Israel Defense Forces," adding that the army "expects its soldiers to act coolly and in accordance with the rules of engagement."

If Netanyahu hopes to successfully defend Israel’s military occupation and its settlement enterprise, he must follow two parallel strategies that can contradict one another. On the one hand, Netanyahu must strengthen the sentiment already popular among average Israelis that Palestinian people are undeserving of equal rights and that state violence toward them is justified. On the other hand, he must also manage to convince Americans, Europeans and other global allies who do not share his anti-Palestinian opinions that the Israeli occupation is humane and benign.

For the first few hours after the scandal broke, Netanyahu was concerned for his international image, trying to distance himself and the state from the cold-blooded killing on camera. But because the news broke on the eve of the Easter holiday weekend, just as the world’s attention was focused on a terror attack in Brussels, it received scant coverage in the English-language media. As Anshel Pfeffer wrote in Ha’aretz, “Netanyahu and the IDF prepared for the fallout from the Hebron shooting. When it never came, they moved on.”


Sgt. El-Or Azarya, seen with a scarf of football club popular with Israeli far-right, was caught on video executing Abd al-Fatah a-Sharif

Opportunity for the Far Right

Netanyahu’s more conservative political partner-rivals responded to the incident by publicly professing their support for the soldier right from the start. Jewish Home party leader Naftali Bennett, who a recent poll revealed to have the greatest shot at unseating Netanyahu as premier, pleaded on the soldier’s behalf, “Has anyone heard the soldier’s side of the story? The country’s leadership was quick to pounce on the soldier who shot the terrorist. Were you there? Did you understand his thought process? His considerations?” On Monday, Bennett announced that he had “called the family of the soldier more than once and will continue to do so.”

The family of the soldier quickly mounted a public relations campaign, with his sister telling journalists at a press conference at the family home, “Why have you judged him on the scene? … Why are you killing him without a trial?” With seemingly no sense of irony, she added, “All that’s left is for you to execute him, without him even being able to defend himself.”

Hundreds of average Israelis have since taken up the soldier's cause, protesting across the country in support of him. The municipality of Bet Shemesh officially endorsed and advertised a demonstration Monday night under the headline “a show of support for the release of the Israeli hero,” while the municipality of Ramle has scheduled its own pro-soldier rally for Tuesday night.

Realizing that international anger over the incident had ebbed and that public support for the soldier had grown, and that hawkish political challengers were nipping at his heels, Netanyahu walked back his disavowal of responsibility for the soldier’s actions, and now demanded that the nation rally around him, saying that, “questioning the IDF's morality is outrageous and unacceptable… IDF soldiers, our children, maintain a high moral standard when they deal with bloodthirsty murderers… we must all support the IDF chief of staff, the IDF and the soldiers that protect us.”

One day after the incident, an analysis of social media revealed that half of the Israeli public supported the actions of the soldier who killed al-Sharif, while the other half was critical of his actions. Two days later, once Netanyahu publicly changed his tune, a second analysis of social media revealed that 82% of the public now supported the actions of the soldier.

An online petition in Hebrew calling upon the Israeli leadership to award the soldier with a medal has already garnered over 50,000 signatures in just four days.

The Kahane Connection

Over the course of the weekend, it emerged that the Israeli soldier who killed Abed al-Fattah Yusri al-Sharif is, unsurprisingly, an avowed racist and Jewish supremacist. In 2014, the soldier wrote on Facebook “Kahane was right,” a reference to Meir Kahane, the late leader of Israel’s far-right, and his call to ethnically cleanse Israel of non-Jews in general and Palestinians specifically. During Israel’s assault on Gaza that summer, which took the lives of over 1000 Palestinian civilians and over 500 Palestinian children, the soldier condemned Prime Minister Netanyahu for not being forceful enough, writing on Facebook, “Bibi, you faggot, what’s the deal with the cease-fire? Fuck them up! … Kill them all."

In a second video of the Hebron incident that was released by West Bank settler paramedic services, the group’s director, Ofer Ohana, is overheard screaming, “The terrorist is still alive, that dog… He’s still alive, come on, someone should do something.” Less than two minutes later, the soldier, an army medic, shoots and kills al-Sharif. When Ohana released the video to the press, it had already been edited to include an onscreen text message rejoicing in a coded call to commit genocide of non-Jews: “Our dear soldiers merited to annihilate Amalek.”

In a third video of the Hebron incident that emerged over the weekend, the soldier, after killing al-Sharif, is seen calmly walking over to Kahanist leader and prominent ethnic-cleansing advocate Baruch Marzel and shaking his hand and patting him on the arm. (Last year, Marzel launched a program to provide IDF soldiers who “eliminate [a] terrorist” with a free pizza.)

On Tuesday, March 29, the soldier will be brought before a military judge in Jaffa. Kahanist leader Bentzi Gopstein has organized a rally in support of the soldier to coincide with the court appearance, and former Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman has announced that he too will be present to publicly support the soldier.

Kahane was ejected from the Knesset for his racism in the 1990s, and the inheritors of his mantle have been investigated for incitement to racism, though never charged or convicted. Kahane’s ideas are becoming increasingly popular in Israel; a recent poll found that half of the country’s Jewish citizens want all of its Arab inhabitants to be permanently expelled. Furthermore, the top funder of the Kahanist movement in Israel is also the top funder of Prime Minister Netanyahu’s election campaigns.

Aftermath of an Execution

By Sunday, the Israeli army announced that its internal investigation had revealed that the soldier in question had acted with premeditation. According to the army, the soldier told his fellows before shooting al-Sharif that the Palestinian “needs to die.” 

But the army statement can also be understood as an attempt to buttress the position of its Chief of Staff, Gadi Eizenkot. “Troops can act only if there is threat to life,” Eizenkot told an Israeli audience last month, in response to increasing calls for extrajudicial executions. “I don’t want a soldier to empty a magazine on a girl with scissors,” he said, eliciting the ire of political and religious leaders.

According to Yedioth Ahronoth’s Yossi Yehoshua, angry Israeli ministers responded by ganging up on Eizenkot, attacking him for his measured statement. But the Chief of Staff stuck to his guns, informing the cabinet that if it wanted to change the army’s rules for live fire, it would first have to fire him from his post.

Over the weekend, the streets of Tel Aviv that abut Defense Ministry buildings were plastered with posters of Eizenkot in Persian garb, calling for his resignation. +972 Magazine analyst Yossi Gurvitz believes that the army statements regarding the soldier’s premeditation were designed to shore up support for Eizenkot just as the army comes under increasing influence of the religious right-wing Jewish Home Party: “The leaks from the army investigation are not coincidental. The Chief of Staff is fighting for control of the army against the [Jewish Home Party lawmakers, Education Minister Naftali] Bennett’s and [Knesset Deputy Speaker Bezalel] Smotrich’s, who in reality control a significant portion of its soldiers. It’s totally political.”

Noting the increased calls by regular Israelis to assassinate disarmed Palestinian assailants, fellow +972 Magazine blogger Orly Noy writes: “Our collective moral compass has become so fundamentally twisted that even the most decent of people, those who are not considered extremists, believe that there is nothing wrong with shooting a man as he lies dying on the ground, while finding any way to excuse the act… exposing the inhumane face of military rule does not cause the Israeli public to wake up from our coma—it only causes us to come up with more ways to justify it.”

But the viral video and the vehemently hawkish response to it will also affect Israeli leaders and the little wiggle room they have for moral flip-flopping. A third +972 Magazine writer, Noam Sheizaf, opined over Twitter, “Hebron's shooting challenges Israeli ability to maintain both international and internal legitimacy for its occupation regime. The space in which both can exist is getting narrowed.”

Just two months ago, after Swedish Foreign Minister Margot Wallstrom expressed concern that Israeli soldiers might be extrajudicially executing Palestinians, she was publicly lambasted by Netanyahu, who termed her remarks “outrageous… immoral and… stupid.” At the time, the former chair of the Israeli Education Ministry’s pedagogic secretariat wrote in one of the Israeli newspapers owned by Netanyahu’s chief financial backer Sheldon Adelson, suggesting that for daring to level this accusation against Israel, Wallstrom deserved to be assassinated herself.

It remains to be seen whether Brussels, still in shock from last week’s terror attacks, will return from the Easter holiday and take notice of Netanyahu’s about-face over the execution of al-Sharif. But with Israeli society continuously careening for the far right, it might only be a matter of time before Netanyahu’s lip service to liberal values and his pandering to the trigger-happy proponents of apartheid are recognized to be irreconcilable.

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