If you want to see the Israel-Palestine conflict in its purest and most crushing manifestation, the place you go is Hebron.
The West Bank city has been divided, since 1997, by an arrangement that grants 20 percent of the land to a handful of Jewish settlers, who walk through their eerily empty streets primarily to express their claim, guarded by bored-looking Israeli soldiers.
The Palestinian section feels livelier but besieged; residents describe the daily torments and humiliations of life under occupation. Chicken wire has been strung up over the Palestinian market to prevent Israeli settlers from throwing down garbage. Families move slowly and cautiously through IDF checkpoints. Young Palestinian men, often angry and unemployed, loiter nearby.
In Hebron, and elsewhere, some young Palestinian men have indulged their anger in recent months by stabbing Israelis more or less at random, wounding or killing a number of innocent civilians and bringing terror to much of Israel.
Last Thursday, two of those young men reportedly stormed a Hebron checkpoint, stabbing an Israeli soldier in the arm. Other soldiers fired at the Palestinians, killing one and wounding the other, 21-year-old Abed al-Fatah al-Sharif.
A few minutes later, activists from the Israeli human rights organization B’Tselem arrived and began filming, as they often do in Hebron. By then, the scene had calmed. B’Tselem’s video shows that a dozen or so Israeli soldiers and settlers milled around as an ambulance arrived to pick up the wounded soldier — but not al-Sharif, who lay on the ground, bleeding badly but still alive. One of the settlers walked up to al-Sharif to take a video on his cellphone.
This was when an Israeli soldier named Elor Azaria walked calmly up to al-Sharif and fired a single bullet into his head, killing him in what a UN investigator later called “a clear case of an extrajudicial execution.” Though blood can be seen draining from al-Sharif’s head, few at the scene react.
The video has become a source of enormous controversy within Israel, in ways that seem, as an American, strikingly similar to our own debates over incidents of police violence in black communities.
“While many Israelis have denounced the shooting … as a grave breach of proper military conduct,” writes the New York Times’s Isabel Kershner, “many others call the accused soldier a hero. By Wednesday nearly 57,000 Israelis had signed an online petition demanding he be given a merit citation.”
Outrage both against and in defense of Azaria has only grown as the IDF has charged him with manslaughter and condemned the incident as a “grave breach of IDF values, conduct, and standards of military operations.”
In response, a grassroots movement of Azaria supporters has called for the IDF chief of staff to be fired, and papered Tel Aviv with posters comparing the IDF general to an ancient Persian king who conspired to kill Jews, according to Kershner. The posters read, “Jewish blood is not to be abandoned. He who rises up to slay you, slay him first.”
This seems to mirror, in some ways, America’s own debate over Darren Wilson, the white police officer who shot and killed the black teenager Michael Brown, who was unarmed, in a mostly black Missouri town with a long history of police violence.
The comparison is imperfect. Whereas Wilson says he feared Brown, Azaria had no reason to fear the wounded and bleeding al-Sharif. Whereas Brown had stolen cigarettes, al-Sharif had stabbed, and likely intended to kill, an IDF soldier.
But the point is that this incident is drawing such controversy in Israel, much as the Missouri shooting did in America, not just for outrageous details of the incident itself but also over how to place the incident within a larger problem that can be more difficult to discuss openly.
In America, that problem was the continued overpolicing of black communities, itself a part of ongoing racial disparities and injustices in America. Many Americans saw the shooting as emblematic of, and in many ways a direct product of, this larger issue, and so treated the shooting as not just an isolated death but as representative of a larger problem affecting millions of people.
But for other Americans, Darren Wilson was himself the victim of a culture that they feared was losing order and had become increasingly violent and frightening. For them, Wilson had rightly stood up for order and been punished by a political system too eager to defer to unruly masses.
More than that, the debate over Brown’s killing was also, of course, a continuation of a very old debate over America’s responsibilities in addressing the larger, generations-long racial injustices that had helped lead this white police officer to shoot this young black man and walk away free. It was an easier and narrower way of arguing over something too big to address head on.
Arguing over Darren Wilson was a way to argue over whether those injustices really exist, over whether or the degree to which white Americans might be complicit and thus compelled to respond, and over whether anything might be owed to black Americans, even if just an apology, in the way that the family of a wrongly killed teenager is owed.
You can see, in Israel, a similar phenomenon playing out over Azaria’s killing of al-Sharif, which has rapidly become a debate that is less about the particulars of this case and more about the proper response to the recent wave of Palestinian stabbings — itself a debate over who bears what responsibility for that violence.
For Israelis who fear the stabbings but have projected their fear onto all Palestinians — a not incomprehensible reaction, particularly given that the stabbings, by design, are random and thus can seem to come from nowhere and everywhere at once — this incident speaks to a belief that security can only come by imposing ever-harsher order and control over Palestinians.
In this view, the responsibility for the stabbings lies with all Palestinians. Israeli political leaders have cited “a culture of hate” to explain the attacks (a line that should sound familiar to Americans who blame “black culture” for incidents of police violence). IDF violence that would seem senseless, such as the apparent execution of al-Sharif, is thus a welcome development, by meeting violence with violence.
The incident, particularly Azaria’s punishment, is thus a way for these Israelis to call attention to what they feel are unjust protections of Palestinians, whom they see as inherently violent and posing a threat that can only be controlled through violence like Azaria’s.
For Israelis who are outraged over al-Sharif’s execution, though, the incident is a way to call attention to Israeli overreactions to Palestinian violence, and a way to highlight how and when those overreactions can undermine Israeli values.
This can be difficult to argue in the abstract, particularly in a moment when many Israelis are understandably preoccupied with fears of stabbing attacks. The al-Sharif killing provides a concrete example for what they see as the culmination of larger but subtler trends, whereby Israeli efforts to control Palestinians have become fundamentally unjust.
Much as America’s debate over Michael Brown and Darren Wilson became a way to debate the nature and legacy of racism itself in America, even if only implicitly, Israel’s debate over Azaria and al-Sharif is in some ways also a debate over the Israeli occupation of Palestinians.
Is it appropriate to meet Palestinian violence by imposing more control and more force, or by considering withdrawing? Is IDF violence against Palestinians just and necessary or unjust and to be condemned? Are Palestinians deserving of comparable treatment that would be accorded Israelis, or have they forfeited those rights through their actions? Is Israeli security best served by maintaining and, if necessary, tightening control over Palestinians, or does this unduly compromise Israeli ideals? When are Palestinians victims and when are they something to be feared?
Right now, those are nominally debates over one Israeli soldier’s actions against one Palestinian attacker in Hebron, but they are also debates over the 50-year Israeli occupation itself. That latter discussion, like the never-ending American discussion of racism, is ever-present in Israeli political life but also, somehow, never quite the focus of the conversation. It is often discussed, due to its sensitivity, indirectly.
But at some point the similarities between these American and Israeli debates end, and the differences become just as clarifying. Black Americans have a voice in American political discourse in ways that Palestinians do not in Israel, where (with some exceptions for Arab Israelis) they cannot participate in the Israeli political system that ultimately rules them.
Palestinians, lacking a direct voice, are underrepresented in Israeli debates over how to treat them, skewing those discussions in favor of harder-line arguments that discount Palestinian concerns. (Ironically, this dynamic leaves Palestinians with few ways to make themselves heard in Israeli debates other than by violence, which empowers only extremists and ultimately harms everyone.)
And as difficult as conversations over race and racism can be in America, the equivalent Israeli conversations can be even more difficult for the unavoidable reason that the Israel-Palestine conflict is exactly that — an ongoing, militarized conflict with regular casualties on both sides.
This is why it is so significant that al-Sharif’s killing happened in Hebron, perhaps the one place in the West Bank where the conflict is most clearly expressed, and thus where the inevitable excesses of war are likeliest to occur.
Hebron is on the front lines of an Israel-Palestine conflict that, it can be easy for those of us on the outside to forget, is not political or metaphorical but a literal conflict. Another way, and perhaps the most significant, that it is most different from America’s own struggle with racism.
Conflicts inevitably produce moments like al-Sharif’s apparent attempted murder of an IDF soldier and like Azaria’s apparent extrajudicial execution of al-Sharif. These attacks are crimes, but such crimes happen in war regardless of which side holds the moral high ground, which side imposes more restrictions on its soldiers, or which side possesses military superiority.
That is not to excuse these actions. Quite the opposite: It shows that by perpetuating the conflict, the responsible actors bear real responsibility for such abuses. One of those actors is an Israeli society that continues to elect leaders who explicitly promise to maintain the occupation that is the conflict’s primary expression.
I do not mention that to apportion blame or to suggest that Israeli society alone is responsible, but rather to offer an explanation for why moments such as these can be so painfully divisive for Israelis. They are, in some ways, arguing not just about Azaria or about al-Sharif, but about themselves.