A new video shows an Israeli soldier shaking hands with a settler leader just after the soldier was filmed apparently executing an injured Palestinian in the occupied West Bank city of Hebron.
The video has emerged as Israelis, including top leaders, are rallying around the accused killer.
Abd al-Fattah Yusri al-Sharif was shot dead along with Ramzi Aziz al-Qasrawi, both of them 21 years old, after allegedly stabbing and moderately wounding a soldier in the Tel Rumeida neighborhood of Hebron’s Old City on Thursday.
The slaying of al-Sharif, who was lying on the ground incapacitated but moving his head before he was shot, was caught on video.
The new video shows the shooter “shaking hands with far-right activist Baruch Marzel” while al-Sharif’s body is removed from the scene, according to Haaretz.
The US-born Marzel, a former leader of the violent group Kach, is notorious for fomenting attacks on Palestinians.
Kach was outlawed by Israel after one of its members, the US-born medical doctor Baruch Goldstein, gunned down 29 Palestinians at Hebron’s Ibrahimi mosque in 1994.
The video provides visible evidence of the close relationship between the Israeli army and the violent settlers it supports and protects.
Haaretz says the new video, published on its YouTube account with the face of the gunman blurred, was filmed by a Palestinian fieldworker with B’Tselem, the Israeli human rights group which released the video showing the execution on Thursday.
The blurring of the faces in the new video is in apparent deference to a gag order that prevents Israeli media from revealing the suspect’s identity.
However, blogger Richard Silverstein, who has frequently published information censored by Israeli authorities, has named the suspect as Elor Azarya, citing independent Israeli websites.
Israel’s Ynet news website effectively confirmed the identification by publishing an image of the suspect with his face blurred.
The same image, without the blurring, appears on Azarya’s Facebook page.
“He is a devoted follower of the Beitar Jerusalem soccer club,” noted Silverstein, based on analysis of Azarya’s social media accounts. Azarya has also written “Kahane was right” on his Facebook page – a slogan used by supporters of late Kach founder Meir Kahane, who called for the total expulsion of Palestinians.
“Confirming the kill”
According to Silverstein’s analysis, Azarya, a medic, “asked permission from his commanding officer to ‘finish off’ the wounded Palestinian.”
“Apparently the commander approved,” Silverstein added. “The soldier walked to within six feet of the wounded Palestinian, cocked his rifle and shot him.”
This practice is known in the Israeli army as “confirming the kill,” and has been used and subsequently approved even in the slaying of Palestinian children such as 13-year-old Iman al-Hams in Gaza in 2004.
Azarya also “liked” the Facebook pages of Israeli leaders who have incited violence or genocide against Palestinians – justice minister Ayelet Shaked and former foreign minister Avigdor Lieberman – as well as the Facebook page of Marzel.
Israel’s political and military establishment broke out into a chorus of condemnation immediately after the release of the video on Thursday.
The army also announced the detention of the soldier and an investigation into the killing.
Yet the condemnations were baldly hypocritical given the long record of Israeli leaders, including Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, of inciting and approving extrajudicial executions of Palestinians.
Numerous videos have shown such killings of Palestinians who were injured, incapacitated or otherwise posed no plausible threat.
Now Netanyahu appears to backing away from his criticism, in light of a swell of public support for the Hebron gunman.
The prime minister told cabinet colleagues on Sunday that “questioning the IDF’s [Israeli army’s] morality is outrageous and unacceptable … IDF soldiers, our children, maintain a high moral standard when they deal with bloodthirsty murderers.”
Netanyahu added that he was “certain that in this case, like in every other case, all of the circumstances are taken into account. Thus we must all support the IDF chief of staff, the IDF and the soldiers that protect us.”
Haaretz called Netanyahu’s comments a “backtrack” from his initial condemnation of the shooting.
Netanyahu’s change of tune appears to be in harmony with public opinion as well as with other politicians who are striking tougher poses.
“The soldier is not a murderer. Have we lost our minds?” Bennett wrote in a Facebook post that calls Israel’s military “the most moral army in the world.”
At Sunday’s cabinet meeting, several ministers, including Bennett and Ayelet Shaked, voiced support for the soldier.
Meanwhile, Avigdor Lieberman demanded the impeachment of the defense minister for failing to back the soldier, and called Netanyahu “spineless.”
Israel’s Channel 2 published an opinion poll on Saturday showing that 57 percent of Israelis believe there is no need to investigate or detain the soldier, as reported by Haaretz.
Two in five respondents called the soldier’s behavior “responsible” and just five percent described it as murder.
An online petition calling on Israel to give the soldier a medal has received almost 50,000 signatures.
The municipality of Beit Shemesh, a town in present-day Israel, even published an ad on its official website urging citizens to attend a rally on Monday to demand the release of Azarya, whom it called a “national hero.”
The soldier’s family has also mounted a high-profile campaign in defense of Azarya.
The gunman’s mother wrote an open letter to Moshe Yaalon, the defense minister, telling him that “you stood in my son’s place, only in the room of Abu Jihad, and confirmed the kill of a despicable terrorist and murderer.”
She was referring to Yaalon’s role in the 1988 slaying of Khalil al-Wazir, a senior PLO leader who was executed in his Tunis home by Israeli assasins, in front of his wife and son.
Meanwhile, the Israeli army investigation into Thursday’s killing has reportedly revealed that the shooter had told a comrade that Abd al-Fattah Yusri al-Sharif “needs to die” shortly before he shot him.
According to Haaretz, the “investigation also found that in contradiction to claims of self-defense voiced by the soldier’s lawyer, there was no evidence supporting the claim there were fears the prone Palestinian was carrying a suicide belt.”
While Israeli leaders line up to support al-Sharif’s killer, Israeli forces on the ground are targeting the youth’s family.
On Sunday, Israeli soldiers raided the home of Abd al-Fattah’s brother, Khalid Yusri al-Sharif, in the village of Jabal Abu Rumman, near Hebron, the Ma’an News Agency reported.
Imad Abu Shamsiyyeh, the B’Tselem volunteer who filmed the execution video, told Human Rights Watch that Israeli forces threatened him both at the scene of the shooting and later on.
Abu Shamsiyyeh was called in by the army to give a witness statement.
He says the army interrogator told him: “How will you benefit from this video? It got a lot of publicity. Your name is known to everyone. Who is going to protect you and your family from right-wing Israelis? Remember you live in [Tel Rumeida], surrounded by Israeli settlers, who will be able to protect you there?”
“I felt that I was being threatened,” Abu Shamsiyyeh said.
Impunity for war crimes
Human Rights Watch said that “the open and casual way that a soldier appears to execute a wounded, prone Palestinian, which was captured on video, suggests a dangerous climate of impunity for war crimes.”
“The video of al-Sharif’s killing by an Israeli soldier shows both an apparent cold-blooded murder and numerous witnesses, which should make for a strong legal case,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, Human Rights Watch’s Middle East director.
“The question is whether Israeli authorities will do what they haven’t done in countless other cases and bring the alleged killer to justice,” Whitson added.
Given the way Israeli leaders are rallying around the gunman, there’s little reason to expect anything different this time.