Elor Azaria at a military court hearing in Jaffa, Aug. 30, 2016. Photo courtesy of Miriam Alster/Flash90.

Israeli soldier who shot downed Palestinian terrorist sentenced to 18 months in prison

An Israeli soldier who shot a downed Palestinian terrorist was sentenced to 18 months in prison.

Elor Azaria, 20, who was convicted of manslaughter last month in an Israeli military court, was sentenced Tuesday by a panel of three judges at the Israel Defense Forces headquarters in Tel Aviv. Azaria also was demoted one rank, to private from sergeant, and was given a 12-month suspended sentence.

Military prosecutors had asked for a sentence of three to five years.

Azaria’s attorney said he will appeal the sentence, and also is appealing the verdict. He will request that Azaria be free until the end of the appeals. Prosecutors have called for Azaria to enter prison as early as Sunday.

About 100 people demonstrated outside of the IDF headquarters, called the Kiriya, during the sentencing. Among their chants: “The people of Israel do not abandon soldiers” and “We’ve come to take Elor.” The soldier’s father, Charlie, thanked the protesters and urged them to remain calm.

“All of the soldiers here are our sons. So I request everyone show restraint,” he said.

In their sentencing decision, the judges stressed that the severity of the incident was mitigated by the fact that it took place in an active combat situation. This was a key component of the defense’s case.

The judges also found, however, that Azaria’s actions did “harm to societal values” and said that Azaria violated the Israeli army’s rules of engagement and values. They also criticized the army for not taking better care of the soldier’s family and the defense minister for his interference in the case.

Azaria, a medic in the elite Kfir Brigade, came on the scene following a Palestinian stabbing attack on soldiers in Hebron in the West Bank on March 24, 2016.

One assailant was killed, and Abdel Fattah al-Sharif was injured. Minutes later, while Sharif was lying on the ground, Azaria shot him in the head in a shooting that was captured on video by a local resident for the Israeli human rights NGO B’Tselem. Azaria was arrested the same day and indicted nearly a month later. Autopsy reports showed that the shots by Azaria killed Sharif.

Prior to shooting Sharif, Azaria had cared for a stabbed soldier.

The case has been controversial in Israel, with some on the political right calling for solidarity with Azaria and others, including military leaders, suggesting such calls reflect a national crisis of ethics.

Following the announcement of the verdict, several right-wing lawmakers called for Azaria to be pardoned.

“Israel’s security demands he be pardoned,” Jewish Home party head Naftali Bennett said in a statement. “Elor was sent to protect Israelis at the height of a wave of Palestinian terror attacks. He cannot go to jail or we will all pay the price.”

Sari Bashi, Israel and Palestine advocacy director at Human Rights Watch, said in a statement, however: “Sending Elor Azaria to prison for his crime sends an important message about reigning in excessive use of force. But senior Israeli officials should also repudiate the shoot-to-kill rhetoric that too many of them have promoted, even when there is no imminent threat of death. Pardoning Azaria or reducing his punishment would only encourage impunity for unlawfully taking the life of another person.”

Britain's Prime Minister Theresa May and Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu pose for photographs outside number 10 Downing Street in London, Britain February 6, 2017. REUTERS/Neil Hall

Is Israel justified in trying to break Breaking the Silence?

Connecting the dots is easy.

In Jerusalem: “The Jerusalem municipality is shutting down the Barbur Gallery, a nonprofit art space in the downtown area, because it planned to host an event by Breaking the Silence, an Israeli veterans’ anti-occupation group which collects testimonies from soldiers serving in the Palestinian territories.”

In Britain: “Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Monday asked his British counterpart Theresa May to halt funding for what he called nonprofit organizations that are “hostile to Israel.”

Also in Jerusalem: “The Foreign ministry plans to reprimand the Belgian Ambassador to Israel Olivier Belle over his country’s support for the non-governmental groups Breaking the Silence and B’Tselem. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu instructed the Foreign Ministry to do so, after discovering that Belgian Prime Minister Charles Michel had met with representative of the left-wing group during his three-day visit to Israel.”

At the airport: “senior Jewish-American executive of the New Israel Fund, which helps fund many left-wing organizations working in Israel and the West Bank, was delayed for questioning by immigration officials upon arrival in Israel on Wednesday in what the group claims was for political reasons.”

Understanding and explaining their meaning is more difficult.

It is more difficult because all explanations are politically charged.

Certain people, the New Israel Fund has many such people, believe the government is involved in an attempt to silence legitimate voices. The event in which the NIF was involved, they say, was “a serious act aimed at intimidating a social activist because of her activities for Israel and Israeli society. The Israeli government… has been persecuting Israeli human rights activists for some time now. Now this policy is being directed at diaspora Jews as well.”

Other people believe that the government of Israel has finally mustered the courage to do something against organizations that take advantage of Israel’s relaxed approach and hurt its foreign relations and security. “The Barbur Gallery” – the gallery that hosted the Breaking the Silence event – “is funded from public money”, Minister Miri Regev reminded the Mayor of Jerusalem. It should not use these funds to “constitute a house for Breaking the Silence, an anti-Israel propaganda organization which spreads lies against the State of Israel and IDF fighters.”

Of course, every case is unique, and every case should be examined separately. A gallery that gets public funding might be subjected to rules different from those governing Israel’s foreign relations. Israel requesting the Brits to reexamine their funding of Israeli NGOs is different from Israel’s decision to reprimand Belgium for a meeting the Belgian PM had in Israel. The questioning of an NIF dignitary at the airport should be looked at carefully to determine whether this was intentional political harassment or maybe an intentional provocation by the visiting NIF staffer.

But overall, it is clear that Israel is upping the ante in its activity against some of the most politically critical organizations that operate here. Why? Two possible reasons come to mind – and these are not mutually exclusive.

One – it is politically beneficial for a right-wing coalition aiming to convince its voters that it is “doing something” about the most annoying elements within Israel’s society. The NGOs in question are the political strawman against which the coalition can unite.

Two – it is strategically important for Israel to dismantle a complicated infrastructure, run by irresponsible Israelis and funded by foreign governments, aiming to weaken Israel. This infrastructure of organizations is a crucial player in the BDS battle against Israel, as it gives Israel’s enemies the ammunition and the cover they covet as they strive to undercut Israel’s ability to defend itself and its interests.

For some Israelis and foreign observers, it’s easy to determine which of these considerations has been fueling the government’s actions. If they dislike the government, they’d go for the less flattering explanation. If they dislike the organizations, they’d go for the more flattering one. It is not as easy for the many Israelis who dislike both the government – or at least some of its more populist actions and rhetoric – and also dislike organizations that appeal to world public opinion in an attempt to turn the world against Israel.

Last year, in a survey I handled for JPPI, we found that a majority of Jewish Israelis believe that there is “too much freedom of expression” in Israel. This belief is widespread, and, as one can expect, grows stronger as we move from left to right and from secular to religious.

It is a disturbing belief, which is not quite characteristic: Jewish Israelis are known for being blunt, for being straight, for refusing to accept authority, for refusing to recognize hierarchy. But still, they feel that a line is being crossed by too many Israelis, and that the government, by letting all things pass, does not properly serve the interests of the country. We did not ask about this specifically in our survey, but it would not be unfounded to assume that Israelis’ unease with Israel having “too much freedom of expression” is mostly about the organizations that the government is currently trying to tame.

Is it a reasonable action by the government? I think it is, within limits. Asking the Brits not to fund opposition organizations in Israel is reasonable. Asking a Belgian visitor not to meet with Breaking the Silence during a formal visit is also reasonable. Asking an art gallery whose funding comes from my taxes not to engage in political activities is reasonable. Still, I’m a little concerned about all of these actions. I am concerned because I don’t trust that the government will identify the red line beyond which these actions become dangerous to Israel’s freedom of speech.

Israeli Jewish man buys Palestinian girl new bike after police broke hers

An Israeli Jewish man bought a Palestinian girl a new bicycle after border guards took and broke hers.

Sami Jolles donated the pink bike Wednesday, according to The Times of Israel. He told the news website the girl’s experience reminded him of when anti-Semites attacked his father in 1920s Europe and threw his bike in the river.

“I think that my father would be proud of me,” Jolles said.

Two Border Police officers in the West Bank city of Hebron were caught on film July 25 taking 8-year-old Anwar Burqan’s bicycle and putting it in nearby bushes. The bike was damaged beyond use, according to the girl’s family.

The video was released on Aug. 1 by the left-wing human rights group B’Tselem.

After reading about the incident, for which the border guards were suspended but not charged with a crime, Jolles said he decided to “close that circle” between Anwar and his father.

He contacted Israeli peace activists, who together with Palestinian activists delivered the bike, along with a “good lock,” to Anwar’s home, one of the Israeli activists, Lonny Baskin, told The Times of Israel.

“She’s a shy little girl, but she was so appreciative; her eyes were shining,” Baskin said.

The Burqan family has struggled in recent years, after Amer Burquan, Anwar’s father, had one leg amputated and lost use of the other after a 6-ton truck fell on him at a work site. Since then, the family has mostly lived off charitable donations and is trying to raise money for a wheelchair, according to Baskin.

Hebron is home to some 200,000 Palestinians and fewer than 1,000 Israeli settlers, who live under heavy military protection. The city, religiously significant to both Jews and Muslims, has long been a hothouse of Jewish-Palestinian violence.

The Justice Ministry’s Police Internal Investigations Department said the officers’ conduct was “inappropriate and unprofessional,” but the investigators determined it was not criminal.

The guards told investigators they confiscated Anwar’s bike because they could not communicate with her in Arabic and wanted to stop her from crossing into the Jewish neighborhood of Hebron, which Palestinians are barred from entering, Haaretz reported.

Ezra Nawi’s arrest after undercover sting enrages right and left alike

The footage, aired on a respected Israeli news show, appeared damning: a left-wing activist, driving through the West Bank, casually describing how he has turned Palestinian real estate brokers over to Palestinian authorities, subjecting them to a possible death sentence.

Asked what happens to the Palestinians involved in the deals he admitted to setting up, Ezra Nawi says the Palestinian Authority “captures them and kills them.” Selling land to Jews is a capital crime under Palestinian law.

Nawi, a Jewish-Israeli who is well-known for protesting Israeli settlement in the West Bank, was arrested shortly after the Jan. 8 broadcast of the investigative program “Uvda” as he was seeking to board a flight out of the country. Two other activists also were arrested – Guy Butavia, also a Jewish-Israeli, and Nasser Nawajah, a Palestinian field worker for the human rights group B’Tselem. Nawi and Butavia were released to house arrest Sunday, while Nawajah was released the next night.

The “Uvda” footage has caused a stir in Israel and heightened already mounting tensions between activists on the left and right. Left-wing groups, already inflamed by a proposed NGO transparency law they say is aimed at undermining them, have rallied to Nawi’s defense, claiming the video and the undercover operation that produced it are merely the latest installments in a broad effort to silence the government’s liberal critics.

On the right, the footage has been taken as further evidence of leftist hypocrisy – campaigning for Palestinian rights but prepared to sacrifice individual Palestinians.

“This is a classic example of how rigid ideologists become immoral and subvert the ideals that they set out to uphold,” said Yossi Klein Halevi, a senior fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute. “This is the smoking gun for the hard left – not only Nawi’s admission, but the outrageous response of his comrades, the outrageous way his colleagues stood by him and lashed out at the critics.”

The footage was captured in the summer of 2014 by Ad Kan, a pro-settler group that aims to conduct undercover stings of human rights groups. In it, Nawi admits to luring sellers into deals only to turn them over to the Palestinian authorities, where they could potentially face a death sentence.

In one scene, Nawi is seen impersonating a broker in a meeting with a Palestinian interested in selling land to Jews. Nawi is then seen seeking help from two fellow activists – Butavia and Nawajah – as well as a Palestinian intelligence official in alerting Palestinian forces.

“What was exposed deserves all condemnation,” said Amir Fuchs, head of the Defending Democratic Values project at the Israel Democracy Institute. But, he added, “It’s clearly part of the long campaign of delegitimization, trying to portray human rights organizations as moles, foreign agents, enemies.”

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, writing Jan. 8 on Facebook, said “the investigation demands unequivocal condemnation from all parts of Israeli society.”

To date, no major Israeli human rights group has bowed to the prime minister’s demand. Instead, several have rallied to Nawi’s defense. Outside a Jerusalem police station where Nawi and the others were being held, protesters gathered last week with signs bearing their photos. The California-based Jewish Voice for Peace, a group that supports the anti-Israel Boycott, Sanctions and Divestment movement, sent out two emails in the last week on Nawi’s behalf.

Hagai El-Ad, the executive director of B’Tselem, told JTA that the video of Nawi was produced by a group committed to smearing Israel’s human rights community and showed no evidence of wrongdoing. The land broker Nawi meets with in the video, an Arab-Israeli, is alive and well.

“There’s missing context,” El-Ad said. “They got a crooked view of the reality in the South Hebron Hills, where there are Palestinians fighting against all odds to keep their land. This is promotional work by a group that views leftist activists as if they’re hostile.”

The “Uvda” report comes amid a continuing effort to restrict the activity of left-wing groups. In December, Israel’s government barred Breaking the Silence, an organization of military veterans that draws attention to alleged Israeli military abuses in the West Bank, from appearing at schools or army bases.

In December, the right-wing Im Tirtzu launched a campaign accusing left-wing groups of being foreign moles. And on Monday, the Knesset is expected to advance a bill that would require some Israeli nongovernmental organizations to publicly declare their foreign government funding, despite a groundswell of opposition from American Jewish groups.

Butavia, one of the arrested activists, sees his detainment as part of that effort. Filmed as policemen escorted him in a courthouse, Butavia was unrepentant.

“This is entirely a political arrest,” he said in a video released by ActiveStills, a left-wing photographers’ collective. “Its whole goal is to prevent our activism for human rights in the territories, and against the crimes and criminals of the occupation. They won’t succeed in breaking us.”

Jewish-Israeli citizen arrested after saying he helps find Palestinians who sell land to Jews

A left-wing Jewish-Israeli activist who was recorded saying he helps Palestinian authorities find and kill Palestinians who sell land to Jews was arrested.

Israeli Police arrested Ezra Nawi, 63, at Ben Gurion International Airport on Monday as he attempted to leave the country for a destination in Europe. He is to be investigated on suspicion of conspiracy to commit a crime.

No order had been issued barring him from leaving the country and he had not been called in for questioning before his arrest, the Times of Israel reported.

In a recording aired Thursday by the television program “Uvda” on Israel’s Channel 2, Nawi is heard speaking about four Palestinian real-estate sellers whom he said mistook him for a Jew interested in buying their property.

“Straight away I give their pictures and phone numbers to the Preventive Security Force,” Nawi, a far-left activist from the pro-Palestinian Taayush group, is heard saying in reference to the Palestinian Authority’s counterintelligence arm. “The Palestinian Authority catches them and kills them. But before it kills them, they get beat up a lot.”

In the Palestinian Authority, the penal code reserves capital punishment for anyone convicted of selling land to Jews. The law, which Palestinian officials defended as designed to prevent takeovers by settlers, has not been implemented in Palestinian courts, where sellers of land to Jews are usually sentenced to several years in prison. However, in recent years several Palestinian have been murdered for selling land. Their murders have remained unsolved.

Nawi was also documented obtaining information from a Palestinian who believed Nawi was a Jew interested in purchasing land. Nawi is seen saying he intends to give the information to Palestinian security officials as well. According to “Uvda,” an activist with the human rights group B’Tselem helped Nawi set up the would-be seller in a sting operation in which the seller would be arrested.

The recordings and footage were collected by right-wing activists who secretly recorded Nawi.

Nawi, who was born in Jerusalem to a family of Jewish Iraqi immigrants, had denied trying to entrap the land broker.

Israel blocks rights group as alternative to military service

Israel has disqualified its foremost human rights group as a volunteer option for youths who choose civilian national service over military conscription, officials said on Wednesday, citing the group's criticism of the Gaza offensive.

The government move against B'Tselem, while unlikely to affect the group's operations, reflected growing anger within Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's rightist coalition at Israeli activism it sees as stoking pro-Palestinian sympathy.

Hoping to close ranks with minority Arab citizens and ultra-Orthodox Jews exempted from the draft for ideological reasons, and to accommodate pacifists, Israel has been sponsoring alternative service in public bodies like education and health.

Civilian national service volunteers have their living expenses covered by the state and later become eligible for benefits akin to those extended to discharged soldiers.

The government's National-Civic Service Authority said it would stop providing staff for B'Tselem after the group argued that some military strikes in Gaza, where 1,945 Palestinians, mostly civilians, have died in a month-old war, were illegal.

B'Tselem currently has one national service volunteer, authority director Sar-Shalom Jerbi told Israel's Channel 2 TV.

“The volunteers represent one camp, in that they want to contribute to the country, to society and to their community,” Jerbi said. “B'Tselem crossed the line in wartime (by) campaigning and inciting against the State of Israel and the Israel Defence Force, which is the most moral of armies.”

B'Tselem director Haggai Elad, responding in the broadcast, described the ban as politically motivated and undemocratic.

“We act out of a deep commitment to the values of the society we are part of,” Elad said, calling on Uri Orbach, the government minister in charge of the Authority for National-Civic Service, to overturn the decision.

Orbach, a member of the ultranationalist Jewish Home party in Netanyahu's government, was unmoved.

“Israel is in the midst of a difficult military and diplomatic campaign against terrorists,” he said in a statement, referring to Hamas-led Gaza guerrillas who have killed 64 Israeli soldiers and three civilians inside the Jewish state.

“An organization that works to prove allegations that Israel is committing war crimes should be so good as to do so with its own resources and not with civilian national service volunteers and state funds.”

Rightist lawmakers have been advancing legislation to trim foreign funding for advocacy groups they view as encouraging international censure of Israeli policies toward Palestinians. Left-wing lawmakers fear an attempt to stifle domestic dissent.

A new investigation by the U.N. Human Rights Council into possible war crimes committed by either side has been dismissed as a “kangaroo court” by Israel.

During the Gaza fighting, Israel's state broadcaster rejected a B'Tselem request to air the names of slain Palestinian children. The group appealed to the High Court of Justice, which upheld the broadcaster's decision on Tuesday.

“Reading the names of the children who died, even though one's heart goes out to them, has a political goal and is not for informative purposes only,” the court said in its ruling.

B'Tselem opposes Israeli settlement in the occupied West Bank. Israel withdrew settlers from Gaza in 2005. Palestinians want a state in the West Bank and Gaza Strip with East Jerusalem as their capital – all lands Israel captured in a 1967 war.

Writing by Dan Williams; Editing by Mark Heinrich

Palestinian minors’ rights violated in military courts, report says

The rights of Palestinian minors tried in Israel’s military courts for rock throwing are being violated, according to a report by the Israeli human rights group B’Tselem.

Only one of the 835 Palestinian minors arrested from the beginning of 2005 to the end of 2010 and tried in military courts in the West Bank on charges of stone throwing was acquitted, according to the report “No Minor Matter: Violation of the Rights of Palestinian Minors Arrested by Israel on Suspicion of Stone-Throwing,” which was released Monday. Of the minors arrested, 34 were aged 12-13, 255 were 14-15, and 546 were 16-17.

The military legislation dealing with minors does not conform to international and Israeli law, which acknowledge that the minor’s age affects his criminal responsibility and the manner in which he experiences arrest, interrogatio, and imprisonment, and which assume that these experiences might harm the minor’s development, according to the report.

A Military Youth Court was established in the West Bank in November 2009, but it has brought limited change, according to B’Tselem.

B’Tselem interviewed 50 Palestinian minors, who described their arrests and time in jail and which illustrate how their rights were violated, according to the organization.

Some of the minors interviewed said they were taken from home in the middle of the night and that their parents were not allowed to accompany them; they were kept awake prior to interrogation; they were denied the opportunity to use the bathroom or to eat and drink; and were threatened during the interrogation.

Minor detainees are more likely to plead guilty in a plea agreement in order to spend less time in prison, since they would receive a sentence of just a few months for pleading guilty, instead of being held in prison throughout protracted legal proceedings, according to the report.