TEL AVIV — For decades, Israel has prided itself on its anti death-penalty stance. But in the past year, calls for the use of capital punishment have started to rise again, heightened by the trial of Elor Azaria, a sergeant in the Israel Defense Forces. Sergeant Azaria has been charged with manslaughter for killing Abdel Fattah al-Sharif, a Palestinian. Mr. Sharif had stabbed an Israeli soldier, and been shot and wounded by the soldier’s colleagues. In a video of the event, he can be seen lying supine and still for several minutes before Sergeant Azaria calmly points the gun at his head and fires.
The sergeant, who has pleaded innocent, claims that Mr. Sharif still posed a threat and that he acted to eliminate the danger. While many Israelis, including the commanders of the Israel Defense Forces, have responded in outrage, others have said that Sergeant Azaria’s actions were justified and have called him a hero.
The support for Sergeant Azaria coincides with a renewed debate on the death penalty in Israel. Avigdor Lieberman, the defense minister recently proposed a bill asking Israeli courts to enact the death penalty in terrorism cases. It would have essentially applied only to Palestinian assailants.
Mr. Lieberman campaigned in last year’s elections on a promise to apply capital punishment to convicted terrorists. He agreed to a partial implementation of his original bill, which had been rejected by the Knesset, when he negotiated his terms for joining Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s coalition in May. The recent attack by Mr. Sharif and Ramzi Aziz al-Qasrawi, a fellow Palestinian, seemed to play into his hands by reinforcing an increasingly widespread yet simplified conception of the conflict: that Palestinians are inherently violent and will never stop trying to kill Israelis.
It’s not hard to pinpoint the root of such a mind-set. It starts with the military education that almost all Jewish Israelis receive beginning in high school. Later, when Israeli teenagers are drafted, the military requires that soldiers view every situation through the lens of security, looking for any possible source of danger.
I learned that crucial lesson when I was drafted into the military in 2009. Our training demanded that we approach threats as immediate, not long term; nuanced thinking was dangerous; political considerations were irrelevant; and Palestinians were security risks until they had been proved safe. While serving in the West Bank, my fellow soldiers and I were kept safe by this type of vigilance. We remained alert to any potential security threats. We paid little attention to innocuous Palestinians or to their needs and concerns.
Despite this security-first outlook, the military’s strict rules of engagement, which Sergeant Azaria appears to have flagrantly broken, are intended to restrain soldiers. As a result of his trial, he is a martyr for the movement that sees those rules as a hindrance to the military’s mission, just as it sees Israel’s avoidance of capital punishment as a hindrance to the state’s fight against terrorism.
But capital punishment for Palestinian assailants will not help fight terrorism, nor will it solve any aspect of the conflict. It will not deter future attacks, as the promoters of the legislation had claimed. It is a thoughtless, vengeful reaction to a problem many Israelis increasingly believe is unsolvable. Mr. Lieberman’s proposed legislation is a sign of the disease of intractable conflict metastasizing.
Source: The New York Times, The Opinion Pages, Nathan Hersh, August 16, 2016
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