The video is infamous: In March an Israeli sergeant shot and killed a Palestinian who had already been lying for several minutes in the street, wounded and neutralized, after being shot while stabbing and wounding another soldier.
Now, Abdul Fattah Sharif’s death is in its long second phase — the sergeant’s military trial. And though months have gone by, all of Israel remains consumed by it.
But the father of the would-be stabber claims not to even be aware that the trial is underway.
“How would I know? No one informed us,” Yusri Sharif, 43, told the Forward in a mid-October interview. “After the trial ends they’ll publish a report online, and that’s it. They’ll give us a headline, nothing more.”
The construction worker from Hebron, in the Israeli-occupied West Bank, was at work on March 24 when a local radio station reported that two youngsters from the clans of Qasrawi and Sharif had been killed. Hearing his own family name in the report sparked a frantic search on social media. But all Sharif could find was a blurry photo of a man lying on the ground.
“A few minutes later they posted a close-up photo,” he recalled. “I recognized my son.”
Even as Sharif absorbed the death of his son, the rare footage of what appeared to be a prone Palestinian’s summary execution by an Israeli soldier as his military comrades stood nearby, seemingly undisturbed, was rocking Israel’s political landscape.
The shocking images, captured by a volunteer for the human rights group B’tselem, went viral on social media, and Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon hurried to condemn the Israeli soldier, Elor Azaria. “Even while our blood boils, we must not allow such loss of control,” Ya’alon said, just hours after a preliminary investigation by military police. “We must never act against our morals and our conscience. This incident will be dealt with in the strictest manner.”
Chief of Staff Gadi Eizenkot chimed in on behalf of the Israel Defense Forces, saying that the event “did not reflect the IDF and its values.” But Azaria has received significant moral support from senior political officials, including Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman, who came to court to show his support for the army medic and called for his release from prison during the trial — a motion the judge ultimately granted.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu initially appeared to condemn the shooting, declaring immediately after it occurred that “what happened in Hebron doesn’t represent the values of the IDF.”
But soon after, as it became apparent that a majority of the Israeli Jewish public strongly supported Azaria, Netanyahu called the soldier’s father and told him, according to Haaretz, ”As a father of a soldier, I understand your distress.” Netanyahu later compared Azaria’s parents to those of soldiers who die or go missing in combat, though he later apologized for this after an outcry.
Meanwhile, retired security officials have volunteered to testify at Azaria’s trial on his behalf. Former IDF Central Command head Uzi Dayan told the court that “all terrorists must die,” regardless of whether or not they posed a threat after being neutralized. The ex-commander of the IDF’s Gaza Division, Brigadier-General Shmuel Zakai, testified that he was convinced Azaria did not shoot Sharif in order to kill him, but merely to disable him. The support of such powerful figures has left Yusri Sharif feeling helpless. He believes his presence at the trial would be superfluous. “I can’t do anything. They’re stronger than me,” he said. “If I went and came [to the trial] it would be for nothing. They will just do whatever they want.”
Like many relatives of would-be stabbers in Hebron — the West Bank city that has produced the highest number of “martyrs” during the recent spike in violence — the Sharif family wavers between outright denial of their son’s intention to kill and justification of his desperate decision to do so.
On the morning of the attack, 21-year-old Abdul Fattah Sharif drank coffee with his parents and left for work at his carpentry shop, his uncle Fathi Sharif, 55, recalled. He bought breakfast for his co-workers: hummus, fava beans, falafel. They drank tea together before Abdul Fattah told his friends he was heading out to install a bedroom in Jerusalem.
“Can you imagine someone seeking death having breakfast?” his father asked. “If you were going to die in five minutes would you finish your cup of tea? But that’s how they think. We, as fathers, do everything in our power to prevent this kind of thing, but we can’t change their thinking.… we don’t know what goes on in their minds.”
Fathi Sharif attributes the attacks to the growing sense of anger and humiliation youth experience in occupied Hebron at the hands of Israeli soldiers and settlers, combined with the daily routine of low-paying jobs and lack of prospects for the future.
Like many of the other young Palestinians who have sought to stab Israeli soldiers and civilians, Abdul Fattah Sharif was not affiliated with any Palestinian political party or terrorist group. He intended to marry once his family could gather enough money for a dowry and a new home.
Israeli authorities held onto the dead man’s body for more than 60 days following the autopsy as his family negotiated the conditions of his burial. Israel demands that funerals of Palestinians killed by the military be carried out at night, with a limited number of participants and no media coverage. The Sharif family refused to accept these conditions. Abdul Fattah Sharif’s body was eventually delivered, in daytime. His younger brother remains in Israeli custody and is being investigated for possible involvement.
In Fathi Sharif’s view, the sole purpose of trying Azaria was to preempt the Palestinian leadership from making an official appeal to the International Criminal Court against Israel. Unlike the father, the uncle closely follows the proceedings on Israeli media.
When asked to predict the outcome of Azaria’s trial, Fathi Sharif was pessimistic.
“He’ll be completely acquitted and his military rank will be raised,” he said with weary Palestinian irony. “In a few years he’ll be a general.” Hebron, the largest city in the West Bank, is also the only city where a small Jewish community lives among a large Arab majority. The Oslo Peace Accords divided Hebron into two zones: H-1, home to the city’s 215,000 Palestinian residents, and the much smaller H-2, where the city’s Jewish community of less than 800 lives in six residential compounds.
An earlier Jewish community of Hebron, one that had been there for centuries, was obliterated in a 1929 massacre committed by some of the city’s Arabs against their Jewish neighbors during the British Mandate. Even as the killings took place, many other of the 435 Jews then living there were hidden by Arab neighbors. The killers were incited by rumors that Jews planned to seize control of the Temple Mount, or Al-Haram Al-Sharif, in Jerusalem, a site holy to Jews, Muslims and Christians. Sixty-seven Jews were killed in the massacre, and the British evacuated the rest of the community soon afterward.
The property those Jews left behind was later used by settler leaders to revive the community in the 1970s after Israel captured the West Bank from Jordan in the 1967 Six Day War.
As the new Jewish settlement took root and Palestinians chafed under occupation, relations between the two groups were rarely neighborly. Mutual attacks in Hebron became commonplace in the 1980s and early 1990s, then peaked with the massacre Baruch Goldstein, an Israeli-American doctor, carried out in 1994 against Muslim worshipers at the nearby Tomb of the Patriarchs, a site holy to both Muslims and Jews. Goldstein entered the mosque section of the site on the Jewish festival of Purim with his M-16 rifle, killing 29 and injuring 100.
The Goldstein attack ushered in a new era of greater segregation between Israelis and Palestinians in Hebron. Fearing the possibility of vengeance attacks by Palestinians, the IDF restricted their access to Shuhada Street, adjacent to the Jewish community in H-2. Up to then, the street was the main Palestinian commercial artery for the Hebron region. The ironic result was that it was Palestinians who were immediately punished after the murder of Palestinians by a Jewish settler. At the Tomb of the Patriarchs, the synagogue and mosque sections were also rigidly divided. Later, following a spike in violence with the eruption of the Second Intifada in October 2000, Palestinian access to Shuhada Street, their main thoroughfare, was further shut down.
Since then, most of the violence between the two sides has taken place in and around the shut-down avenue. Today, some 650 soldiers and border police—nearly one soldier per settler—guard the Hebron Jewish community and the Tomb of the Patriarchs, a popular tourist and pilgrimage site. Azaria, who served in the Kfir Brigade as a medic, was one of those soldiers.
Contact Elhanan Miller at firstname.lastname@example.org
Elhanan Miller is a Jerusalem-based journalist specializing in the Arab world. Trained in Arabic and Middle East politics in the IDF and Hebrew University, Miller regularly comments on regional affairs in Arabic and English-language media.