I believe I was the first to recommend that the soldier Elor Azaria, the killer of Hebron, be granted a pardon.
But this recommendation was conditional on several requirements: first, that the soldier openly and unconditionally confess his crime, that he apologize and that he be sentenced to many years in prison.
Without these conditions, any request for a pardon by the soldier would mean an approval of his act and an invitation for more war crimes.
Sergeant Azaria, a medic in a combat unit, appeared on the scene after an incident in the center of the Jewish enclave in the ancient town of Hebron. Two young Palestinians had attacked an army control point with knives and been shot. We don’t know how the first one died, but the second was filmed by a camera provided to the locals by the wonderful Israeli anti-occupation organization B’Tselem.
The camera shows the assailant lying on the ground, heavily wounded, motionless and bleeding. Then, some 12 minutes later, Azaria, who had not been present, appears on the screen. He stands less than a meter from the wounded Arab and shoots him point-blank in the head, killing him outright.
The photographic evidence, made public at once on Israeli TV (a fact not to be forgotten), left the army no choice. Killing a helpless enemy is a crime in any civilized military. Azaria was accused of manslaughter – not murder.
All over the right wing, he at once became a national hero. Politicians, including Binyamin Netanyahu and the present Minister of Defense, Avigdor Lieberman, hastened to adopt him.
Azaria was found guilty. In a sharply worded judgment, the military court stated that his testimony consisted of sheer lies.
The judgment aroused a storm of protest all over the right wing. The court was cursed and became the real accused. Facing this storm, the court buckled and this week sentenced Azaria to a ridiculous prison term of 18 months, the usual penalty for an Arab juvenile stone-thrower who has not hit anybody.
Azaria has not apologized. Far from it.
Instead, he, his family and his admirers stood up in the courtroom and broke into the national anthem.
This courtroom scene became the picture of the day. It was clearly a demonstration against the military court, against the high command of the Israeli army and against the entire democratic structure of the state.
But for me it was much, much more.
It was the Declaration of Independence of another Israeli people. It was the breaking up of Israeli society into two parts, the tensions between which have been growing more acute from year to year.
The two parts have less and less in common. They have entirely different attitudes toward the state, its moral foundations, its ideology, its structure. But until now, it was accepted that at least one almost sacred institution stood above the fray, beyond any controversy: the Israeli army.
The Azaria affair demonstrates that this last bond of unity has now been broken.
Who are these camps? What is the most profound element of this division?
There is no way around it: it is the ethnic factor.
Everybody tries to evade this fact. Mountains of euphemism have been erected to hide it. Everybody is fearful, even frightened, of the consequence of it. Hypocrisy is an essential defense mechanism.
There are now two Jewish-Israeli peoples. They dislike each other intensely.
One is called Ashkenazi, a derivative of an old Hebrew term for Germany. It encompasses all Israelis of European and American origin, who adhere or pretend to adhere to Western values.
The other is called Mizrahi (“eastern”), They used to be called – erroneously – Sephardim (“Spaniards”), but only a small fraction of them are actually the descendants of the Jews expelled from Spain some 700 years ago. The great majority of these expellees chose to go to Muslim countries, instead of Europe.
The Mizrahi community encompasses all the Israelis whose families came from countries extending from Morocco to Iran.
Historically, Jews were often mistreated in Europe, and rarely so in Islamic countries. But Ashkenazim are proud of their European heritage, while in fact growing more and more estranged from it, while for the Mizrahim there is no greater insult than comparing them to Arabs.
How did the rift start? The Zionist movement was created mainly by Ashkenazim, who constituted the overwhelming majority of the world’s Jews before the Holocaust. Naturally, they were also the main contributors to the new Zionist community in Palestine, though there were also some outstanding Mizrahi figures.
The deep division started right after the 1948 war. As I have often mentioned, I was one of the first who saw it coming. As a squad-leader in the war, I commanded a group of volunteers from Morocco and other Mediterranean countries (who, by the way, saved my life when I was wounded). I witnessed the beginning of the split and warned the country in a series of articles, dating from 1949.
Who was to blame? Both sides. But since the Ashkenazim controlled all aspects of life, their share of the guilt is surely larger.
Coming from two great but very different civilizations, it was perhaps inevitable for the two communities to differ on many aspects of life. But at the time everybody was befuddled by the Zionist world of myths, and nothing was done to avoid the disaster.
Nowadays, the Mizrahim see themselves as “the people”, the real (Jewish) Israelis, despising the Ashkenazim as the “elites”. They also believe that they are the great majority.
This is quite wrong. It is more or less an even split, with Russian immigrants, ultra-orthodox Jews and Arab citizens constituting separate entities.
An intriguing question concerns intermarriages. There are a lot, and once I believed that they would automatically heal the rift. That did not happen. Rather, every pair joins one or other of the two communities.
The lines are not drawn clearly. There are many Mizrahi professors, medical doctors, architects and artists who have joined the “elites” and feel part of them. There are many Ashkenazi politicians (especially in the Likud) who behave as if they belonged to “the people”, hoping to attract votes.
The Likud (“unification”) party is a phenomenon by itself. The preponderant mass of its members and voters are Mizrahim. Indeed, it is the Mizrahi party per excellence. But almost all its leaders are Ashkenazim. Netanyahu pretends to be both.
Back to Azaria.
Public opinion polls tell us that for the large majority of Mizrahim, killing a seriously wounded “terrorist” is the right thing to do. After the singing in court, his father kissed him and cried out: “You are a hero!” For many Ashkenazim, it was a despicably cowardly act.
One casualty of the affair is the Chief-of-Staff, Gadi Eizenkot. Until recently, he was the most popular person in the country. Now he is cursed by the Mizrahim as a contemptible lackey of the Ashkenazi “elites”. Yet, in spite of his German-sounding name, Eizenkot is of Moroccan descent.
(A personal note. In the 1948 war, I saw with my own eyes many acts of real heroism: soldiers who sacrificed their lives to save a comrade or who fought on in desperate situations. I remember the deed of Natan Elbaz, a full-fledged Mizrahi, who threw himself on an activated hand-grenade to save the lives of his comrades. I feel insulted when a soldier is crowned with this title after cold-bloodedly shooting a wounded enemy.)
For more than 40 years now, the army has not fought a real war against a real military. It has deteriorated into a colonial police force, the instrument of a system of oppression of another people. In the performance of this role, many acts of brutality are committed every day.
Quite recently, an innocent Arab teacher, a Bedouin citizen of Israel, got involved by accident in an incident, when policemen clashed with the local population. They shot the teacher, in the erroneous belief that he was about to run them over.
The man was severely wounded and bleeding, with policemen all around him. They did not call the medics. He slowly bled to death. It took 20 minutes.
Only a soldier of the highest human quality, who grew up in a sound human family, can withstand this brutalizing effect. Fortunately, there are many.
I believe that it is there that the solution lies. We must get rid of the occupation, by all available means, the quicker the better.
Every true friend of Israel around the world must help.
Only then can we devote our mental and social resources to mending the Great Rift and become the people many of us would like to be.
And sing our national anthem with a clear conscience.
Uri Avnery is an Israeli journalist, co-founder of Gush Shalom, and a former member of the Knesset
This article first appeared on the website of Gush Shalom (Peace Bloc) – an Israeli peace organisation
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This post was written by Uri Avnery