In reaction to soldier's guilty verdict, a hardened Israel

A military court found that an Israeli soldier who killed a wounded Palestinian assailant had violated army rules of engagement, pitting a revered institution against tougher public attitudes toward the conflict and the rule of law.

Ariel Schalit/AP
Right-wing supporters of Sgt. Elor Azaria scuffle with police officers outside the Israeli military court in Tel Aviv, Jan. 4, 2017. The Israeli soldier was found guilty of manslaughter in the death of a wounded Palestinian attacker in Hebron last March.

With its occupation of the West Bank in its 50th year, Israel is displaying profound shifts in public attitudes hardened by the ongoing conflict with the Palestinians – toward the conflict, free speech, and the rule of law.

Those shifts were nowhere more evident than in the breakdown of the broad consensus of support for the hallowed institution of the army, whose leadership has found itself at odds with strong currents of public opinion in the case of the Israeli soldier convicted of fatally shooting a wounded Palestinian assailant.

Sgt. Elor Azaria, who is awaiting sentencing, was convicted last month of manslaughter for killing the Palestinian, who had stabbed another soldier in the West Bank city of Hebron last March. The scene was caught on video by an Israeli human rights group.

A military court ruled the shooting violated the army's rules of engagement, but the guilty verdict caused an uproar, with supporters of the soldier scuffling with police outside the courtroom. Polls showed a majority of Israelis favored a pardon, a position echoed by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. The army leadership and military judges were denounced in a wave of social media posts hailing Sergeant Azaria as a hero.

Democracy advocates say that many Israelis, embittered by the grinding conflict with the Palestinians, have abandoned their respect for the rule of law in favor of an alternative ethos of revenge.

"The diminishing tolerance of Israeli society for terrorist attacks has produced the doctrine, promoted by some political leaders, that anyone who attacks Jews should die, even when the attacker is neutralized and no longer poses a threat," says Mordechai Kremnitzer, a law professor and vice president of the Israel Democracy Institute, an independent think tank. "That does not bode well for Israeli society's commitment to the value of human life."

"While in the past the Israeli public believed we were in a difficult but temporary situation and would soon reach an agreement that would bring quiet, the dominant narrative now is that this is an endless conflict with a foe that opposes our very existence," Professor Kremnitzer adds. "The loss of hope for change has eroded sensitivity."

"There's a struggle going on between those who believe that despite the terrorism we have to maintain our humanity and basic values, and others who think those values are a luxury for a society in constant conflict with no end in sight," Kremnitzer says.

Public sympathy for soldier

During a wave of Palestinian stabbings and other attacks since October 2015, Israeli forces or security guards appeared on several occasions to have killed attackers who were wounded and neutralized, but the video footage of the Hebron incident was the clearest evidence of such a shooting.

The case has pitted the army command, and its defense of the army's code of conduct, against rightist politicians and a public that has deep sympathy for Azaria.

"There's a public reverence for Israeli soldiers that makes them more sacred than civilians; they're viewed as the sons of all of us," says Ronen Bergman, senior correspondent for military and intelligence affairs at the Yediot Ahronot newspaper and author of a forthcoming book on the Mossad intelligence agency.

"The mainstream view is that there simply cannot be a situation in which a Jewish soldier murders an Arab," Mr. Bergman adds. "Fundamentally, this is racism of the worst kind, a preference for the law of the street over the law of the army and the country. The army command finds its authority challenged on Facebook and Twitter, and by a mob ready to turn on the most sacred institution, the military."

"Usually it's the army that wants to press ahead and initiate wars, and the politicians rein it in," Bergman says. "But now it's the opposite: The army is upholding democratic norms. A country where the military is the last guardian of democracy is in a sorry state."

Attitudes toward free speech

Controversy over the conduct of Israeli soldiers in the West Bank is also affecting attitudes toward the exercise of free speech inside Israel.

Legislation recently introduced in the Israeli parliament seeks to ban lectures in schools by members of "Breaking the Silence," a veterans group that publicizes testimonies by former soldiers about abuses against Palestinians. The group, which opposes the Israeli occupation, has been accused by rightist politicians of slandering the army.

A Jerusalem art gallery that hosted a talk by "Breaking the Silence" this week was ordered shut by the city's right-leaning mayor, Nir Barkat, claiming violation of terms of use of the city-owned property.

Underpinning the public response to the Azaria case is a growing weariness and pronounced disinterest in the moral dilemmas posed by Israel's protracted occupation of the West Bank, according to Tom Segev, an Israeli historian.

"It interests us less than in the past," he said. "People have stopped believing in the possibility of a peace agreement, and feel that they can live with this level of tension indefinitely. There's a sense that we're under siege and have to defend ourselves. The occupation has become part of the routine for an entire generation of Israelis."

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