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The Occupation Is on Trial

An IDF soldier shoots a wounded Palestinian terrorist in Hebron, and is detained and tried. His guilt or innocence will reveal how Israel—after five decades of military control—is dealing with its society becoming more intolerant, more dangerous, and more violent.

Yoav Fromer
September 27, 2016
Video still from The Independent
Still from a video depicting a wounded Palestinian knife-wielding assailant shot by Israeli soldier Elor Azaria as he lies on the groundVideo still from The Independent
Video still from The Independent
Still from a video depicting a wounded Palestinian knife-wielding assailant shot by Israeli soldier Elor Azaria as he lies on the groundVideo still from The Independent

For the past four months, Israelis have been anxiously following the trial of Elor Azaria, the Israeli Defense Forces sergeant charged with manslaughter for killing a fatally wounded knife-wielding Palestinian terrorist in Hebron in March. As with other famous trials that have captured international attention—for instance, those of Alger Hiss during the post-World War II Red Scare or of John T. Scopes in the 1920s (aka “The Monkey Trial”)—the fate of Azaria, who claims he was acting in self-defense, has been divisive among Israelis exactly because it resonates far beyond his individual actions. Despite initial criticism hurled at the IDF for unfairly making Azaria into a sacrificial lamb, there really was no way to avoid a trial: It was inescapable, given Israel’s vulnerability to criticism on the international stage; imperative for upholding the rule of law; and paramount for preserving the IDF’s high ethical standards. But there remains a fundamental problem with the judicial proceedings that forces a deeper reassessment of the entire affair; especially because the trial conveniently and intentionally ignores the historical circumstances that facilitated the alleged crime in the first place and confuses Azaria to be the cause—rather than symptom—of the real disease plaguing Israeli society.

Like in that legendary scene from Casablanca when Captain Renault pronounces his “shock” at finding gambling going on in Rick’s Café just as he courteously pockets his own winnings, all too many Israelis who endorse bringing Azaria to justice are suddenly shocked to learn that, after nearly 50 years of occupying the West Bank, the instruments of organized violence employed to control the Palestinians might produce young Israeli men who are, well, violent themselves. The disturbing video of Azaria methodically loading his weapon, calmly taking aim, and then shooting a bullet into the incapacitated terrorist’s head was therefore anything but shocking. And while leading military officials like former Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon and IDF Chief of Staff Lt. General Gadi Eizenkot have rightly been quick to castigate the young soldier and unequivocally condemn his actions—“This is not the IDF, these are not the values of the IDF and these are not the values of the Jewish people” an official army statement declared in response to the shooting—his critics are deluding themselves by attempting to isolate Azaria and present his behavior as an exception rather than the norm for any occupying army, even one as genuinely honorable as the IDF. What happened in Hebron six months ago was not an aberration. It was an inevitable outcome of the occupation itself.


In his legendary history of the Peloponnesian Wars, the Greek historian Thucydides retells the story of how Cleon, an Athenian statesman and general, made the Realist pitch for annihilating the men of Mytilene, a rival city that rebelled against what was then still the Athenian republic. “Personally, I have had occasion often enough already to observe that a democracy is incapable of governing others,” he presciently told his fellow citizens and reminded them of an inconvenient truth: “Your empire is a tyranny exercised over subjects who do not like it.”

Next June will mark the 50th anniversary of Israel’s conquest of Judea and Samaria in the Six Day War. While Israel is no Athens and the occupation of the West Bank is certainly not tyranny (or, for that matter, anything even resembling the modern form of European imperialism exercised by the countries that are most prone to criticize Israel these days), that doesn’t mean that the corrupting internal effects are not the same. They are. And if the Azaria trial is to have any genuine resonance and meaning, it is by reminding us of the timeless historical truth with which most Israelis are still unable—or unwilling—to come to terms: Imperialism and democracy will never coexist.

The critical genius of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness was to begin and end his chilling literary journey into colonial Africa in London, at the time the pinnacle of Western-enlightened-democratic civilization. That was no coincidence: as Hannah Arendt suggested in her own magnum opus, The Origins of Totalitarianism, what the Europeans did in Africa in the 19th century would come back to haunt, and ultimately destroy, European society in the 20th. Both Conrad the novelist and Arendt the philosopher were aware of the corrosive effects that imperialism had on the democratic soul; you cannot suspend basic values, tenets, and human rights abroad and then expect to be able to preserve them at home. Every war produces traumatic effects on the soldiers condemned to fight them. But waging an unjust war against civilians—which is, to a certain extent, what the occupation is, even if most Israelis are not intentional agents of injustice—generates a moral trauma that is particularly dangerous, even deadly, to a democratic body politic like Israel made up of citizen-soldiers.

The ill effects of the occupation are apparent throughout Israeli society. Anyone paying attention to the statistics and news reports coming out of Israel in recent years should be alarmed by the disturbing culture of violence that has gradually taken root—against women, political activists, the LGBT community, and especially Arabs. Reports of sexual violence against women, for instance, have, according to police data, registered a significant increase. Just last year there was a 60 percent rise in the number of women killed by their spouses or relatives (half of which were among Jews). One chilling government report from 2012 that traced data from 2003-2011 asserted that every third Israeli woman falls victim to some sort of sexual assault and found that acts of violence against single women had skyrocketed by nearly 20-fold. While Tel Aviv remains staunchly proud of its epic Pride Parade and gay-friendly atmosphere, there has also been a surprising spike in violence against members of the LGBT community around the country: In addition to the vicious murder of Shira Banki, the teenage girl stabbed to death by an ultra-Orthodox man during the Jerusalem Pride parade last year, a report released in February by a prominent gay-rights organization found an 80 percent increase in acts of physical and verbal violence targeting LGBT members in 2015.

Violence has naturally also permeated the political realm: Much like American liberals in the 1960s who protested the Vietnam War, many activists who oppose the occupation are labeled “un-Israeli,” branded as “traitors,” and accused of treason. This has also been fueled by controversial legislation passed in the Knesset that specifically targets left-wing NGOs and curtails their finances and lobbying activities. Members of monitoring organizations like B’Tselem or Breaking the Silence that oppose the occupation have increasingly been threatened and harassed. During the 2014 conflict in Gaza, left-wing groups protesting the war were attacked by right-wing mobs and had to be rescued by police.

More than anything, the infiltration of violence into Israeli society can be felt through the unprecedented level of vitriol, intolerance, and incitement that, 21 years after the assassination of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin by an ultra-right extremist, continue to infect public discourse: In addition to just about every leading politician, artist, or intellectual associated with the Israeli left (who have long since been victims of incitement) even prominent Likud politicians like President Reuven Rivlin and the former Defense Minister Yaalon are routinely excoriated as traitors and labeled, among other things, Arabs, Left-wingers, and Nazis, for taking a courageous stand against racism and violence. As Yaalon himself made clear, this hateful rhetoric did not originate on the political fringe or in the dark realms of social media—but in the bedrock of the ruling Likud Party and other mainstream right-wing institutions. The most surreal indication of just how toxic public discourse has become in Israel was the recent condemnation of Likud PM Yehuda Glick, a veteran settler-activist who has campaigned for years to secure Jewish rights in the Temple Mount (and was nearly assassinated by a Palestinian terrorist two years ago for doing so). Even he came under fire from extremists and was called a “stinking left-winger” for conveying shock at Azaria’s shooting of the incapacitated terrorist and having the audacity to claim it “defies Jewish morality.”

Alongside the increasingly intolerant and racist attitudes voiced by many Israelis against Arabs—a comprehensive Pew survey published earlier this year found that nearly half of all Israeli Jews favored expelling the Arab population—the escalation of violence by Jewish terrorists has become a legitimate cause for alarm. Although there have long been Jewish vigilante organizations that targeted Arabs for political or religious reasons, there has been a qualitative shift in the nature of violence that suggests a pathological hatred: In July 2014, the Palestinian teenager Mohammed Abu-Khdeir, was kidnapped, beaten, and burned alive by three Jews, while last summer another group of Jewish terrorists firebombed the Dawabshe family home in the West Bank village of Duma, burning to death an 18-month-old baby and both his parents, who succumbed to their excruciatingly painful injuries after a few weeks.

Taken individually, each of these violent trends can probably be explained by a variety of shifting political, socioeconomic, or cultural circumstances. But it is only when we take a step back and reconsider the whole picture, over time, that we begin to see at least in terms of empirical data, what many Israelis have been sensing deep in their hearts for a while: that their society has become more intolerant, more dangerous, and yes—much more violent. While there is no single causal link between the occupation and the intensifying culture of violence, the correlating factors are nevertheless too powerful to ignore. Violence is increasingly prevalent when driving here; it has become ubiquitous in bars and nightclubs especially among youth, terrifyingly inescapable on social media, and endemic among the military and police forces, from which countless high-ranking officers have been ousted in recent years for sexual assault (in case you forgot: A former president, Moshe Katsav, is finishing up his prison sentence for rape, while Ofek Buchris, the former commander of the legendary Golani Brigade, is currently on trial for rape, sodomy, and sexual harassment of two of his female subordinates). Anyone who has partaken in any form of social activism in Israel in recent years—whether to advance dialogue with Arabs, assist African migrant workers or even demonstrate solidarity with Ethiopian Jews who are systematically discriminated against—can testify to the physical risks involved. Earlier this year, a Ministry of Education report warned of a sharp increase in violence among school children as well. One education expert from Hebrew University naturally linked this to the tenuous security situation and explained the obvious: “When the society becomes more violent, it impacts younger generations.”


There are moral, legal, and political reasons to oppose the occupation: It is often cruel and unjust to innocent civilians, illegal in whole or part according to international law, and diplomatically destructive to Israel’s position in the world. There are, however, also legitimate security concerns that prevent Israelis from unilaterally ending it: the occupation is a necessary evil, some claim, given the untrustworthiness of the Palestinian leadership, its egregious incitement against Israel, and the very real and imminent threat of terrorism. For some settlers and their supporters, the occupation is a form of territorial liberation that they justify religiously and historically.

What ideologues and pragmatists on both sides are overlooking though is that one basic criterion that should trump all others: self-preservation. And, if the Azaria trial that is set to conclude in the coming weeks has taught us anything, it is that with each new generation that has to grow up with—and take part in—the occupation, a commensurate moral degeneration follows.

That is why Israel must make a fateful choice. If it genuinely cares about preserving its democratic ethos then it must find a way to minimize the mutually destructive friction with Palestinians. It can start by, among other things, tactically disengaging from the plethora of isolated settlements, building walls in particularly vulnerable areas, and most importantly: making clear to its own citizens as much as to the rest of the world that the occupation is a short-term security need rather than a long-term political project. This should be done not for the sake of the Palestinians, anti-Semitic BDS forces, or self-righteous intellectual critics. It should be done for the sake of those of us who live here. By repeatedly pointing the finger at the Palestinians—who certainly share much of the blame—or fatalistically whining that the international community is hypocritical and prejudiced against Israel (it most definitely is!), Israelis are essentially surrendering the most powerful aspect of the Zionist spirit: agency. The whole point of Zionism, at least as Herzl and the early founders envisioned it, was, after all, to empower Jews to take control of their own destiny.

Trying to continually control a foreign people through military means is national suicide. The ancient Athenian republic suffered a coup and degenerated into oligarchy; British parliamentary democracy barely survived the domestic turmoil generated by the neverending Irish, Boer, and Indian crises (among others) and eventually granted independence to them all in order to save itself; the Fourth French Republic collapsed in 1958 because of Algeria and underwent a tumultuous constitutional crisis that facilitated the return of Charles De Gaulle; and even the United States experienced a sanguinary Civil War because of slavery only to find itself a century later on the brink of another one as result of its war in Vietnam. Israel is a young democracy, and its still-inchoate democratic culture cannot be taken for granted. Unless it prioritizes liberal values over territorial ambitions, and fast, it risks losing both.


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Yoav Fromer teaches politics and history at Tel Aviv University.