The Face Of A Killer - Or A Hero? Most Israelis would crown Elor Azaria (above) with the garlands of a national hero. The Israeli Defence Force, however, upholding its "Purity of Arms" doctrine, found him guilty of manslaughter for shooting a wounded and unarmed Palestinian terrorist in the head.
ELOR AZARIA entered the courtroom with a boyish, almost bashful, smile on his face. If you did not know that he was there to discover whether he had been found guilty or not guilty of manslaughter, you might think he was there to receive some sort of prize or award. Certainly, the crowd outside the military courtroom would gladly have awarded Azaria the garlands of a hero. He had shot dead a Palestinian terrorist – what more needed to be said?
Much, according to Sergeant Azaria’s superior officers. They found him guilty of manslaughter and of violating the ethical code of the Israeli Defence Force. The soldiers of Israel, the court reminded Azaria, are required, at all times, to demonstrate the “Purity of Arms”.
According to this extraordinary doctrine: “The soldier shall make use of his weaponry and power only for the fulfilment of the mission and solely to the extent required; he will maintain his humanity even in combat. The soldier shall not employ his weaponry and power in order to harm non-combatants or prisoners of war, and shall do all he can to avoid harming their lives, body, honour and property.”
The Purity of Arms doctrine speaks to the time when Israel was young, socialist, and determined to build a new and very different kind of society. The Israel of soldier-scholars; of kibbutzim, trade unions and co-operatives. The Israel that is no more. The Israel swallowed up by the intolerance, hatred and fanaticism which, like a mighty sandstorm, has enshrouded all the nations of the Middle East.
The idealism of the young Israel; it’s determination to be better than the circumstances which made its declaration of statehood so urgent and unavoidable; was by no means universal within the ranks of the Jewish nationalist community. Those who had fought the Nazis face-to-face in the forests of Eastern Europe arrived in Palestine with an altogether darker view of human nature.
In the places they had left whole peoples were in motion. Ethnic groups which had lived for centuries in the towns and cities of Eastern Europe were being driven from their homes, packed into railway-cars, trucks and buses and ferried hundreds of miles to the west. Today, we would call it “ethnic cleansing”. In the years immediately following World War II it was called “repatriation”. There were to be no more Sudetenlands, the victors insisted. No more ethnic enclaves out of which grievances could be fanned into resentment, rebellion and war.
In the civil war that followed the 1948 declaration of Israeli statehood, these darker Zionists were determined to “repatriate” the Palestinian people by force and terror: north, into Lebanon and Syria; south, into Egypt; east into the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan. They wanted Israel for the Jewish people – and only the Jewish people.
On 9 April 1948, in the Palestinian village of Deir Yassin, two Jewish militia groups, Irgun and Lehi, massacred around 120 people, many of them women and children, pour encourager les autres. Thousands of terrified Palestinians responded by fleeing towards the borders. Five weeks later the armies of Egypt, Syria and Jordan attacked the fledgling Israeli state.
Twenty-five years earlier, the radical Zionist, Vladimir Jabotinsky, had warned: “Zionist colonization, even the most restricted, must either be terminated or carried out in defiance of the will of the native population. This colonization can, therefore, continue and develop only under the protection of a force independent of the local population – an iron wall which the native population cannot break through.”
An ever-advancing wall of concrete: The growth of one Israeli settlement on the West Bank.
For decades, the idealistic Israel resisted the steely logic of Jabotinsky’s “iron wall”. Their doomed mission: to preserve the ideal of an independent Jewish state whilst constructing a free and equal secular society inside it. As if trusting in the purity of Israeli arms could somehow transform the task of protecting the borders and institutions of the Zionist homeland into something other than the brutal and bloody exercise it was always destined to become.
The Israeli military court’s verdict – a fading echo of the nation’s founding principles – has called forth a cacophony of angry voices demanding Azaria’s instant pardon. Polling indicates that a clear majority of the Israeli population would rather have a dead Palestinian terrorist than an pure Israeli soldier. The dark Zionism of Irgun and Lehi; the ruthless Zionism of Jabotinsky: between them these two powerful ideological currents have swept away and extinguished the idealism of Israel’s founders.
The walls of the settlements that are advancing relentlessly into what remains of Palestinian territory may be made of concrete, rather than iron, but the “colonization” of the territory of the “native population” that they make possible will not stop. And the Israeli soldiers that walk those walls; men like Sergeant Elor Azaria, will laugh to scorn the notion that the imposition of military force can ever be pure.
This essay was originally published in The Press of Tuesday, 10 January 2017.