January 09, 2017 - The Elor Azaria case

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Yossi Alpher is an independent security analyst. He is the former director of the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies at Tel Aviv University, a former senior official with the Mossad, and a former IDF intelligence officer. Views and positions expressed here are those of the writer, and do not necessarily represent APN's views and policy positions.

This week, Alpher discusses why last week's conviction in military court of a soldier of manslaughter in the killing of a wounded and neutralized terrorist in Hebron caused such a commotion in Israel; whether Azaria really benefited from such overt due process or if it were more of a Dreyfus process; how this affects Israeli society; whether with all the relevant figures now lining up behind the next steps: sentencing and either reduction of sentence or a pardon, this is becoming “old news;” and if there are broader ramifications to the Azaria case.

 

Q. Last week a military court convicted a soldier of manslaughter in the killing of a wounded and neutralized terrorist in Hebron. Why did this trial cause such a commotion in Israel? Why isn’t the Elor Azaria case just another “casualty” of the occupation?

A. As we near year 50 of the occupation and Israel becomes increasingly religious, racist and militaristic, Israelis’ attitudes toward the army and its values are changing. The changes, in turn, tell us a lot about evolving Israel society.

 

Q. But aren’t cases like this usually handled by the army, within the ranks, without so much publicity?

A. Yes. The difference in the Azaria case is embodied in a combination of digital technology, establishment concern to show the world a “moral” occupation, but also the establishment’s concern to keep pace with racist and ultra-nationalist attitudes that it itself has cultivated among the public.

Thus, Azaria’s execution of a wounded Palestinian was captured on video by a Hebron Arab resident wielding a camera provided by the Israeli human rights organization B’Tzelem.  The clip went viral on the web. The immediate reaction of the prime minister, the minister of defense and the IDF chief of staff was to condemn the act as murder and promise to uphold the rule of law so they could continue to portray Israel’s occupation as humane and legal. The secondary reaction of the prime minister and many other politicians, upon sensing the public mood, was to sympathize with Azaria and his family and recognize a host of seemingly extenuating circumstances. Throughout, the IDF stood its ground in condemning the act and rebuffed attempts at politicization.

In this atmosphere, a full-fledged public military trial became necessary.

 

Q. Did Azaria really benefit from such overt due process? Did the trial have to become, as Azaria’s supporters accused, a kind of Dreyfus process?

A. The moment the Israeli messianic, pro-settler right grasped the impact of the trial, it effectively took over the trial process and politicized it. Azaria became the victim, not the executioner. By counseling Azaria’s parents, who were overwhelmed by the event, to reject any advice and aid from the army (which even included economic aid for the family during the trial period), the extreme right guaranteed that Azaria would be represented by relatively inexperienced civilian counsel rather than by a high-ranking criminal lawyer called up by the army for reserve duty.

The result was demonstrated in the reading of the three military judges’ unanimous verdict. It demolished the defense’s ill-considered and self-contradictory arguments one by one. Azaria could not have decided the prostrate terrorist was wearing an explosive vest simply because he wore a jacket when half of Hebron were wearing jackets that cool day. He could not have concluded the prostrate terrorist was reaching for his knife when the weapon was several meters away. He could not have feared for his life and the lives of bystanders, yet fail to warn them to move away. He could not have told bystanders and right-wing activists in Hebron that all terrorists deserved to die yet killed the terrorist out of a genuine concern that the he was still dangerous. This systematic and very professional dismantling of the defense by the judges, which virtually guarantees the verdict will not be overturned on appeal, took nearly three hours to read (in a shortened version).

The verdict even included reprimands to two retired generals, former heads of the Central Command that is in charge in the West Bank who are now identified with the political right and who volunteered to testify on Azaria’s behalf. According to the officer-judges, their attempts to justify his act reflected an astounding lack of knowledge of the rules for opening fire.

That Azaria was convicted of manslaughter rather than murder reflects the ultimate degree of consideration the military could have afforded him. Yet the polls consistently show that most Israelis, both before and after the trial, believe Azaria is innocent of any wrongdoing: the occupation placed him in confrontation with a terrorist and Azaria acted correctly; IDF soldiers are our “children” and have to be “protected”; that’s what is required by the reality in the West Bank and East Jerusalem. Upon learning of the verdict, Azaria’s more extreme supporters turned their anger on the army and on Israeli society in general.

 

Q. So how does this affect Israeli society? Aren’t the extremists a relatively small minority?

A. They are. But they are operating in a highly permissive public atmosphere that embraces Azaria. In such a situation, without resolute leadership from the political echelon the minority sets the tone. Here are some of the more perceptive reactions to this ugly reality that I culled from the media in recent days:

Columnist Nachum Barnea: “IDF soldiers have become helpless children in our perception . . . in a dynamic that has been going on for years and reached its apogee in the campaign to free Gilad Shalit [from five years of Hamas captivity in Gaza, at a cost of freeing over 1,000 terrorists]. . . . Note how bad it has become: the last confrontations with Hamas in Gaza demonstrated that Israeli society is today more sensitive to the death of soldiers in combat than the death of civilians. This is a distorted, false and in the long term deadly order of priorities.”

IDF Chief of Staff Gadi Eizenkot: “An 18-year-old man serving in the army is not ‘everyone’s child’. He is a fighter, a soldier, who must dedicate his life to carry out the tasks we give him. We cannot be confused about this.”

Author and humorist Meir Shalev, commenting on the reaction of extremists to the verdict: “I was mainly concerned by the lack of police reaction to the taunts, ‘Gadi, Gadi [Eizenkot], Rabin is looking for company’. . . . This reflects the message from the higher ranks. Chief of Police Alsheikh unfortunately is not Eizenkot. But why should he be? [He has] the backing of the prime minister, who always says what [Education Minister] Bennet says, just a few hours later. And the bizarre fact is that the two biggest supporters of [Azaria] are of all people the ministers of education and culture. Yes, you heard right: culture and education.”

Col. (ret.) Dr. Shmuel Gordon, strategic researcher and blogger: “I looked at First Sergeant Azaria and was gripped by fear. His hair-raising smile during the reading of the court verdict in his case reminds me again and again of Yigal Amir’s smile during his trial [for the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin].

 

Q. Still, Minister of Defense Lieberman has moved from sympathy for Azaria to a position of resolute support for Eizenkot and the IDF justice system. All the relevant figures have now line up behind the next steps: sentencing and either reduction of sentence or a pardon. Isn’t this becoming “old news”?

A. True, the pace of events in Israel has as usual guaranteed that the public is now preoccupied with something else: a truck attack on Sunday in Jerusalem that killed three IDF officer trainees and one officer; Netanyahu’s huge consumption of cigars and his wife’s of champagne provided gratis by a Hollywood billionaire. And yes, the military system almost guarantees that Azaria will be a free man relatively shortly. There will probably be a decision by the current Central Command commander to reduce Azaria’s sentence to a year or two. Alternatively, after a year in jail there will be a presidential pardon.

For precedents we can look at the November 1956 Qafr Qassem incident in which 43 civilian Arab residents of the village of the village of Qafr Qassem, including women and children, all returning from a day in the fields, were shot and killed by the IDF for violating a curfew during the Suez Campaign. The Israel High Court ruled that this was an act of murder carried out under a “black flag”; the most basic common sense should have dictated different behavior by the IDF. The officers involved in this heinous act were all free within a few years after their jail sentences had repeatedly been reduced—by the chief of staff and the president of Israel. The most senior IDF commander involved never went to jail, paid a symbolic fine and was eventually promoted.

Or take My Lai, the Vietnam War massacre of around 400 villagers by American troops. The US Army lieutenant in charge was held in house arrest for three and a half years, then pardoned; no one even mentioned his superiors.

 

Q. Okay, so this is standard procedure for armies. But are there broader ramifications to the Azaria case?

A. It would appear so. And while it is hard to support such standard procedure, the IDF and especially Chief of Staff Eizenkot emerge from this affair as pillars of decency. Don’t blame them for 50 years of occupation; blame the politicians.

First among the broader ramifications: the IDF is no longer at the heart of the Israeli consensus. For years, we have seen soldiers identified with the “left” refusing to serve in the West Bank, or even refusing to serve. Now we hear voices from the far right talking about not serving in an army that doesn’t agree that all terrorists should be executed and that persecutes “victims” like Azaria.

(A possible collateral ramification would be for soldiers to hesitate to open fire when they should do so, for fear of legal consequences. So far this does not appear to be happening.)

Q. Was Azaria mistaken in assuming that all terrorists should die? Doesn’t the “coup de grace” (“confirming killing” in IDF parlance) happen at other times when there are no cameras around? Doesn’t Israel maintain an entirely separate--and far more severe--penal system for terrorists as opposed to common criminals? 

A. Whether left or right, the issue is first, the occupation, and second, the nature of the military’s behavior in enforcing the occupation after 50 years. The tasks that Elor Azaria and his fellow soldiers are told to carry out in the West Bank are essentially police or gendarmerie tasks, not military. Yet they are entrusted to the IDF, which should be trained to fight wars, not police the alleyways of Hebron. A third issue, addressed above by Nachum Barnea, is the public’s inclination to embrace soldiers as “our children” and to shield them from harm, when in fact the job of soldiers is to stand in harm’s way. What kind of army does this leave us?

After nearly 50 years, the Azaria case is important because it tells us who and what we are becoming. The picture is not pretty.

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