What’s at Stake for Israel in al-Sharif Killing: Japanese Officers were Executed for Killing POWs

By Juan Cole | (Informed Comment) | – –

The Israeli military and security forces have a problem. They are fairly obviously being ordered to commit summary executions of prisoners. The problem: This behavior is one of the more heinous of war crimes as defined in international law. At the very least it is a crime. Amnesty International began documenting the practice last fall, as Palestinian youth reacted to what they saw as the Israeli undermining of Sec. of State John Kerry’s peace talks by launching a series of violent attacks.

The issue was pitched powerfully last week when an Israeli soldier shot a wounded and immobilized Palestinian assailant at point-blank range in the head. The Palestinian, Abd al-Fattah al-Sharif, was suspected of having been involved in a knife attack on Israeli personnel at a checkpoint. Had the soldier killed al-Sharif in self-defense or while defending his colleague, the action would have been justified. But once al-Sharif had been wounded and immobilized and disarmed, shooting him in the head and killing him was simple murder. The soldier, whose identity is being shielded by Israeli authorities, maintains that he feared the Palestinian might have a bomb, but the victim had already been checked for munitions, and the video taken by another Palestinian of the event does not bear out this interpretation. An Israeli court has only charged the soldier, who appears to have harbored a profound hatred of Palestinians, with manslaughter.

And Israel itself has a problem: the vast majority of Israelis approved of the summary killing, with only 5% seeing it as murder and only 19% even disapproving.

If the al-Sharif killing were the only one, that would be different. As noted, human rights organizations are alleging a pattern here, which implies that Israeli officers are setting rules of engagement premised on the commission of war crimes.

After Japanese officers ordered the killing of 300 p.o.w.s on the Indonesian island of Ambon during World War II, they were put on trial in Australia and 4 were hanged and many others given prison sentences.

It is not necessary to argue that the Palestinian resistance fighters fighters who attacked Israeli security forces were technically prisoners of war (though international law has been leaning in the direction of seeing resisters to foreign military occupation in that light). They can just be detainees suspected of crimes. You still can’t just shoot them in the head once they are subdued.

It is worth noting that the incident occurred in Hebron, Palestine, not in Israel. Israelis had no business being in Hebron in the first place.


h/t Human Rights Watch

The way these Palestinian assailants do resemble prisoners of war is that they attacked soldiers. That is, the argument that it is all right to kill them because they had launched assaults does not hold water. The Japanese at Ambon killed those p.o.w.’s in revenge for the sinking of a Japanese ship by a Dutch mine, resulting in the deaths of all hands aboard. If international law requires that p.o.w.’s be treated humanely when by definition they had attacked the forces of another country, it is recognizing the illegitimacy of summary revenge, which is the activity in which the Israeli army is indulging.

Swedish foreign minister Margot Wallstrom was among the first to speak out against the systematic summary executions by Israeli forces, last January.

Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu in his typical propagandistic way greeted Walstrom’s complaint with feigned incredulity. He complained that Israeli troops were being condemned for defending themselves against knife-wielding attackers. But they weren’t. Self-defense is always permitted in the law, assuming proportionate force is deployed.

The police and soldiers were being criticized for declining to try take attackers into custody, routinely shooting them in the head instead. That is, disproportionate force is being applied. And in other instances the attacker was no longer an immediate threat but was killed anyway. Once an assailant has been disarmed and immobilized, he is not an assailant anymore, he is a prisoner. And you’re not allowed just casually to murder prisoners.

When Sen. Patrick Leahy took up Wallstrom’s complaint and announced that the US Congress will investigate this pattern of killings of p.o.w.s by Israeli forces, Netanyahu again blustered that Israel was being held to a standard that other forces in the Middle East are not.

It is certainly the case, as Amnesty International has argued, that Hamas summarily executes prisoners.

Sen. Leahy replied, however, that the United States government does not give those other forces (e.g. Hamas in Gaza) $3 billion a year in foreign and military aid. He might have added that the European Union does not consider Hamas to be an honorary member of the union or give it tariff breaks or facilitate science and technology transfers for it.

It is Israel that gets those billions (not to mention billions more in US tariff easements and tax-deductible donations) and which is treated as almost-a-member by the EU. The Israeli army is in fact treated very differently by the West than are most military forces in the Middle East, precisely because Israel is considered a member of the Western club. Remember all that talk about Israel being the only democracy in the Middle East (actually that title belongs to Tunisia now) and a member of the ‘civilized world’? Well those titles aren’t bestowed on a country that routinely flouts the Geneva Conventions and the UN charter and the Statute of Rome, which are the framework of law accepted by civilized countries.

A letter by Leahy and other members of Congress to Sec. of State John Kerry, according to Ma’an News Agency, “It suggested the US State Department and Department of Defense may be in breach of the Leahy Law — a law named after the Vermont senator that prohibits the provision of military assistance to foreign military units that violate human rights with impunity.”

If the policy of summary executions of prisoners goes on, Israeli officials could be held accountable at some point, as Commander Kunito Hatakeyama was held accountable by being hung in the wake of the Ambon trial.

But the ugly results of the opinion polls of Israelis concerning this policy of systematic murder of detainees is already an indictment of sorts.

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Related video:

France 24: “Israel soldier trial: Soldier filmed shooting Palestinian appears in court”

11 Responses

  1. Mondoweiss published the killers name and photograph on March 25th

    Top Israeli officials who issued directive to execute Palestinians hang Hebron killer out to dry –

    Elor Azraya, the soldier who summarily executed Abed al-Fattah Yusri al-Sharif as he lay on the street immobile and unarmed yesterday, is suspected of murder.

    In his defense, his lawyer Eyal Beserglick said Azraya “acted in accordance with the rules of engagement as suggested by his superiors.”

    – See more at: link to mondoweiss.net

  2. 5% of Israelis seeing it as murder and only 19% even disapproving (despite the video tape showing the entire episode/execution) is scary. That level of hatred and racism so deeply and widely ingrained in the population will require – not years – but generations, to recognize and overcome. I don’t see this ending well for Israel (despite the fact that they continue to keep confiscating Palestinian land unpunished). This level of widespread hate, paranoia and racism will eventually turn inward.

    • Former Kach Party leader and self-described “right-hand man” to slain Jewish extremist MK Meir Kahane, Baruch Marzel, has been reported to have appeared on a video at the killing site shaking hands with the smiling IDF shooter – Elor Azraya

  3. Of course, the fundamental rule of who has the power ultimately determines the path of justice. The trials of alleged war criminals in Germany and Japan after World War II were determined by the victors’ interpretation of justice. Of the list of war crimes original proposed for the Nuremberg Trials many were deleted because the Allies sitting in judgment were also guilty of these crimes. As the Israelis learned a long time ago as long as they are the tail wagging the American dog they can do whatever they like. Why all this attention to one Israeli murdering one Palestinian in cold blood? What about the thousands of Gazans – men, women and children – slaughtered in Operations Cast Lead and Protective Edge?

    The only danger for Israel is that it is being enabled to continue its decline into a cesspool of moral degradation that will eventually bring about its fall, but not before many more Palestinians have their lives destroyed by “the most moral army in the world.” What a crock!!!

  4. Netanyahu wants other Middle Eastern countries held to the same standard? The worst of the bunch is Saudi Arabia. I am certain he doesn’t want US relations with Saudi Arabia to break down. Because I am certain that the US brokered secret understandings between those two countries to act as the co-suzerains of the region. And part of that understanding is that the monarchy-subsidized Wahhabi clergy directs young boys throughout the Arab world to sneak out and fight Iran and its allies, not Israel.

    Of course I can’t prove that. The proof will be how far Israel will go to protect a country that is officially opposed in every possible way to what Israel officially supports.

  5. The history of Israeli war crimes is long and sordid. One need read only the books by Robert Fisk to get a good understanding of their perfidy. This is the result of de-humanizing your opponent. Fisk relates how about 35 years ago he heard an Israeli soldier calling Palestinians cockroaches. And, of course, Sharon saw nothing wrong in allowing the massacre of thousands of refugees in Lebanon. Given the influence of AIPAC, I’m pleasantly surprised that there is at least one senator who is willing to call them to account. It may not be now or soon, but eventually Israel will pay for its crimes because they can’t control the area forever.

  6. Lt. William Calley killed 22 people in My Lai Massacre in Vietnam. After trial, he was sentenced to life imprisonment. He was gone into house arrest, not jail. Nixon pardoned him after 3 years.

    Israeli soldier killed one Palestinian; Netanyahu will pardon him even before court decides any sentence.

    It may not happen this way, but these days Muslim blood is cheap & Europe & America is full partner in this bloody massacre. Without the unconditional support of EU & USA, it cannot possible.

    Rules are made for the weak.

  7. “Netanyahu again blustered that Israel was being held to a standard that other forces in the Middle East are not.”

    Apart from everything else, Netanyahu can’t refer to other issues to merely distract attention from his own government’s ongoing criminal behaviour, which is serious enough to warrant attention in it’s own right.

    Conversely, the number of Israelis killed in stabbing attacks is far, far fewer than hundreds and thousands of people dying and suffering in violent conflict elsewhere. Should the attacks on Israelis be ignored in favour of other conflicts ?

  8. On December 31, 2014, fifteen months ago, a Resolution was brought on for debate in the U.N. Security Council which would have declared the Independence of Palestine with borders at the green line subject to swaps. It provided for a deadline for Israeli withdrawal and contained other provisions which would have been imposed upon the parties according to The Law of Nations. Had it been passed and then violated, the guilty party would have been subject to sanctions and/or in the case of Israel even eviction by force of arms.

    Usually such Resolutions are vetoed by the United States on behalf of Israel out of fear of her Lobby. This time poor Ambassador Strong was not required to endure that humiliation. The White House and Secretary Kerry just called Mr. Goodluck Jonathan of Nigeria and asked him to instruct his Ambassador to abstain thus killing it.

    Another resolution with similar provisions remains on the UNSC docket. No debate is scheduled though It could be on short notice. Were the U.S. to vote “yes” instead of “no” (the veto) it would be arguably the most historic turning point yet in our young century.

    Here is the text of that Resolution:

    link to facebook.com

  9. I doubt much will happen to the killer. Worst case it will be like the My Lai massacre. A short time in prison before being pardoned.

    • “Elor Azraya” – the known killer – can be subject to social boycott in Europe & the US.

      Obama can then sign a bill forbidding such social boycotts, “forcing” people to socialize with him.

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