B’Tselem ensuring that we don’t lose our humanity
Op-ed: In its clear statement on the severity of Elor Azaria’s actions, the court nailed the importance of the organization that exposed them. This becomes all the more important in light of politicians’ delegitimization, incitement and abashment campaign against B’Tselem, the real defender of democracy in Israel.
On July 12, 2007, in one of Baghdad’s suburbs, two of Reuters news agency's local staffers were killed in an airstrike carried out by American helicopters along with 14 other people, including children. The US Army argued that all the victims had died in bitter battle in a crowded area full of terrorists, and that there was no video documentation of the incident.
But there was, and it was leaked to WikiLeaks later on. The video shows people walking on the street, including the photojournalists marching calmly with cameras which are clearly not a weapon, and the American helicopters conducting a massacre with 30-millimeter bullets. When 12 people were already lying dead on the dusty street, one of the Apache crewmembers was heard saying, “Look at those dead bastards,” and another crewmember replied, “Nice.” Then they went on to bomb a car that had arrived to try to help the wounded.
The publication of the video sparked an international row, which was followed by a scathing investigation in the US Army and which turned Julian Assange into a person who cannot be ignored.
Imad Abu Shamsiya is not an anarchistic hacker like Assange. He is a Hebron resident who volunteers in a number of human rights organizations. From one of them, Human Rights Defenders, he received a Panasonic Full HD camera.
Abu Shamsiya lives 50 meters away from the IDF post in Tel Rumeida. On March 24, 2016, upon hearing voices, shouts and gunshots, he quickly grabbed the camera and ran outside. He handed the seven video segments he had filmed in the following minutes to the main organization he volunteers in, B’Tselem, which immediately handed them over to the Israeli Military Police. The segments stirred a storm as big as the one created by the WikiLeaks footage.
Later on, Abu Shamsiya testified at the Military Court, where Sergeant Elor Azaria was convicted of manslaughter. The judges were apparently impressed by his account, and even stated in the verdict that the material provided by B’Tselem, which the conviction was primarily based on, was completely authentic and that no one had attempted to edit or fabricate part of it.
In between, Abu Shamsiya received death threats, but when he arrived at the Hebron police station to complain, he was rejected for several days before being kicked out. The police refused to accept his complaint.
Is the massacre in Iraq similar to the Elor Azaria affair? No, but it’s safe to assume that an investigation into the Hebron shooting incident, if one had even been launched, would have also ended in nothing if it were not for Abu Shamsiya and his camera. The Military Police would have found it very difficult to reach the truth without the film as a road map. The witty defense claims made by Azaria and his lawyers would have seemed much more reasonable: He thought that the terrorist, Abdel Fattah al-Sharif, was lying on a bomb and posed a danger, he acted according to the rules of engagement, or the terrorist was already killed by the initial gunfire. All of these claim were only contradicted thanks to the video.
Now, after Azaria's decisive verdict, we should thank Abu Shamsiya and B’Tselem for making all of this possible. A person who carried out such a serious offense has been prosecuted and convicted. If it were not for these legal proceedings, the al-Sharif death affair would have likely reached the International Criminal Court in The Hague and cast a horrible moral stain on the State of Israel. If it were not for B’Tselem, which has been serving for many years as a source of information seen as a reliable and serious resource by IDF investigation and prosecution officials that helps them launch and establish many criminal cases, the public reaction over the Azaria affair would not have erupted and a difficult truth about Israeli society would not have been exposed.
In its clear statement regarding the severity of Azaria’s actions, the court nailed the importance of the organization that exposed them. This becomes all the more important in light of the delegitimization, incitement and abashment campaign launched by right-wing politicians, and those fawning over the Right, against B’Tselem. They think—justifiably—that the majority of the public supports them, that the majority of the public believes B’Tselem outcry should be gagged, that its members are Israel’s enemies and act to humiliate Israel in the world, that they are leftist traitors.
But they, of all people, are the brave ones, the real defenders of democracy in Israel, the ones ensuring that we don’t lose our humanity.