Some nine months ago, when the “stabbing intifada” was still a near daily phenomenon, two Palestinians sought to do their work among soldiers on guard duty in Hebron. The Israelis were alert, killed one of the attackers and “neutralized” the other. According to testimony and a cell phone video supplied by the civil rights organization B’Tselem, the Palestinian was lying inert on the ground when a soldier, Elor Azaria, who had been standing some distance away from the action, approached and shot him in the head.
The soldier was questioned by his superiors and then the military police. He was taken into custody and charged with a killing that was not necessary by military circumstances, what has been translated as “manslaughter.”
Right away he became the focus of contrary politics, reflecting different cultures of Israel.
His family united in his defense, joined by a cluster of right wing Israelis, and by respected IDF retired personnel who argued that the young man acted in an understandable manner given the tensions created by the Palestinians’ attack.
Against them were comments from the current IDF Chief of Staff and a former Chief of Staff who was at the time Defense Minister. They said that the soldier had violated the norms of the IDF and killed a man who was no longer a danger to anyone.
The Prime Minister played his usual role between the sides. He spoke with the family and expressed his concern for their feelings. When challenged, the Prime Minister asserted that he did not say anything to justify the soldier’s action, but would rely on the judicial procedures of the IDF.
Since the incident, the soldier has been kept in what is described as “open incarceration,” and released for home visits.
The IDF procedures have now reached a guilty verdict by a court martial, but still to be heard are arguments about punishment, then the court’s decision about punishment, and then appeals of both the verdict and the sentence. It took more than two and one-half hours for the head judge to read the court martial’s assessment of the case and to reach the key sentence of guilty. It is possible that we are months, or a year or more, from anything that can be said to be final.
The officer who chaired the panel of judges dismissed one by one the claims of the defense. She denied that the soldier could sense a threat from the Palestinian, assessed his immediate behavior and initial comments as reflecting someone who intended to kill the Palestinian. She noted and rejected the several changes in the soldier’s explanations of what he thought and why he acted, as well as various explanations given by defense witnesses about his fatigue, tension, and traumas. She also rejected the intervention of politicians and activists in behalf of the soldier, and asserted the primacy of IDF norms with respect to deadly fire, which the judge asserted are provided time and again in basic training and later in advanced training and briefings for soldiers assigned to combat units.
Some are saying that the IDF was “covering its ass” to look good to Israel’s international critics. There have been other cases when individual soldiers may had gone too far in their use of deadly force. Some are reprimanded or punished. Critics of the IDF say that it is too lenient. Some soldiers who violate the rules may be known only to themselves or to comrades who do not report them.
This case reached the headlines because of its occurrence where there were numerous witnesses, and its capture on a cell phone.
The soldier at the center of this incident was his own worst enemy. Soon after the killing, he said that the Palestinian “had to die.” He was also known to identify prior to the incident with right wing, Kahanist activities, known for anti-Arab racism that might qualify for the Israeli equivalent of the KKK.
Azaria could have segued out of a long trial and who knows what sentence by admitting his fault and accepting a plea bargain, but that wouldn’t fit the notions of his family and supporters.
Two days prior to the announcement of the verdict, the IDF Chief of Staff, Gadi Eizenkot, spoke out against Azaria’s supporters who asserted that he was the child of the nation, who was put in danger and had to be defended. Eizenkot asserted that 18 year olds recruited to the IDF are not children but soldiers who are trained in the rules and norms of the IDF, and expected to act accordingly.
Apparent in the arguments surrounding Azaria are conflicting views about how the IDF should operate, and–beyond that– what should be Israel’s policy with respect to the Palestinians.
One view is that the IDF should strive for total victory, should carry the struggle to the enemy, who should be made to pay the ultimate price of their aggression.
Against this is the view that there is no simple solution to the national conflict; that Palestinians and their supporters cannot be defeated in any total manner; that Israel and Palestinians must continue to live alongside one another. There is an inevitable mingling in residence and/or work of Jews and Israeli Arabs, and to a lesser extent, Palestinians.
Official policy, followed and inculcated in recruits by the IDF, is not only a humane approach to individual Palestinians who do not present an immediate danger, but also as much accommodation as is feasible in order to facilitate co-existence.
One analyst’s review of the Azaria case and other incidents concluded that the IDF defends soldiers whose unnecessary killing of Palestinians may be viewed as an error in judgement or under the stress of an attack, but that Azaria’s case was an outlier that looked more like a soldier deciding to kill a Palestinian some time after he had been rendered harmless.
Prior to the day of the verdict, organizers announced that there would be buses to bring demonstrators to the site of the court martial from Azaria’s home town of Ramla. At the onset of the Israel Radio’s broadcast of the verdict and commentary, which pre-empted all other news on the prime radio station of Reshet Bet, there were estimated as between 50 and 60 demonstrators outside the court, along with some 300 police assembled to control things. As the reading of the decision moved forward and the judges knocked down one defense claim after another, and it became apparent that the end would be a guilty verdict, the crowd became noisy and restive. Demonstrators included a group of football hooligans noted for racist chants and violence against Arab players and spectators at the games. As a guilty verdict became more apparent, individuals tried to block a main street, and the police arrested several. By then Azaria’s assembled supporters were estimated as several hundred, still a far cry from the tens or hundreds of thousands who gather when a wide swath of Israelis are serious about something..
The politics surrounding Azaria feature the head of Jewish Home demanding that the Chief of Staff or the President to use their authority to pardon him immediately. A leading figure of left-of-center Zionist Union said that the Chief of Staff might consider that, given the social divide that the case threatens. One of that politician’s competitors for the leadership of Zionist Union spoke out against the idea of a pardon, and expressed his strong support for the norms and judgement of the IDF. Prime Minister Netanyahu joined the call for a pardon.Observers noted that Netanyahu did not call for calm or respect for the procedures of the IDF.
Other politicians and media personalities called for calm, and respect for the judicial procedures of the IDF, despite strong feelings in support of a young man caught up in something bigger than himself.
Media polls indicated something between 60 and 70 percent in favor of leniency or a pardon for Azaria.
In response to a number of threats, the IDF provided security for the three officers who ruled unanimously on Azaria’s guilt.
The President or the Chief of the General Staff may avoid considering a pardon or a reduction in the court’s sentence until after the end of judicial procedures. Defense and prosecution arguments before the judge about a sentence will begin in about a week. Then there’ll be a pause to the actual decision about punishment, and then appeals. Azaria may be in custody for another year or more before there is a formal consideration of a pardon, or a reduction of his sentence.
Or Azaria and his family may sense their limits, and agree to a plea bargain.
Reprinted with author’s permission from The Jerusalem Post