Elaor Azaria: The Soldier from Hebron
The past month was busy with political events, such as the UN resolution, the terror act in Jerusalem, investigation of our Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and more. This is my take on the trial of Elaor Azaria, “The soldier from Hevron,” in my opinion one of the most important and critical affairs of Israel today. If you discuss any of the other issues mentioned above and hear an Israeli perspective on them, I would love to talk about them over email, coffee or even dinner any time!
In March 2016, in the middle of a terror wave known in Israel as the “Knife Intifada,” a soldier shot a terrorist in Hebron and killed him. What was special about this situation, which might sound totally normal as part of the terror fighting atmosphere, was that the terrorist was laying wounded and disabled on the ground. After the video of the shooting was published, it caused a public storm with strong reactions towards two sides in Israeli society – one condemning the soldier, and the other defending him. After the video was seen around the world, Bogie Ya’alon, the then-defense minister, and Gadi Aizenko, the Chief of Staff, both rushed to condemn the act and remind us and the rest of the world that the core values of the IDF are “Purity of Arms” and “Human Dignity.” On the other side, a lot of people felt like the army needed to back up its soldiers, who are sent to serve not by choice and deal with hard situations that threaten their lives every day. Those voices were supported by Education Minister (and head of “Habayit Hayeudi”- Israel’s national religious party) Naftali Bennet, and by the current Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman.
After months of trial in which both sides had the chance to present their cases, on Wednesday, January 4, Israel’s military court found Elaor Azaria guilty. The debate over this issue was the main conversation in the Israeli street for a while after the shooting and caused dramatic political turns such as the resignation of the former Minister of Defense Ya’alon. It came back to life in an even higher volume after the verdict, resulting in violent protests in the main streets of Tel Aviv and outside of the courthouse doors. During the trial the defense tried to claim with different arguments that Elaor (the soldier) had been acting from stress in an unclear situation, thinking the terrorist might have a bomb on his body, etc. The judges rejected each one of those arguments. In a three-hour long verdict Judge Heler explained (among other things) that Elaor came to the site 10 minutes after the incident was over, had seemed calm, and shot only after a few minutes. He did not act according to the orders in case of a bomb, but said right after he shot that “the terrorist deserved to die” - all his other explanations for his action came later.
While the panel of three judges found him guilty in the killing beyond all reasonable doubt, the important questions that brought people out to the street are still worth talking about. What kept the Israeli society busy before and after the trial, and separated us into two major groups are not the facts, but the values this case brought up for discussion. The first thing that is important to understand when we’re talking about the “Elaor Azaria case” is that it took the IDF out of the large public consensus for the first time. There were times before that a part of the population did not agree with a certain war or operation, but the IDF as an organization, through its values and officers, was always in the big consensus, and the politicians refrained from criticizing it. After the prosecution of Elaor, a lot of people – including soldiers - felt like the state was abandoning the soldiers. Those people claimed that Elaor was doing his job, and that the consequences of his prosecution would be that soldiers will be afraid to act when necessary. Different Knesset members and ministers such as Naftali Bennet and Avigdor Liberman supported those voices and claimed that the state needed to back up the army.
But here we get to the very important question – what does it mean to back up the army, and its soldiers? Does that mean to stand behind the lonely soldier even when he was acting against any IDF rule and professional norm? Or maybe supporting our army and our soldiers mean supporting the IDF’s core values, backing up the high leaders while they insist on following those norms, and understanding that the humane values of the IDF are what has shaped our army and our society for over 60 years. These values are not a left or right matter but universal ones. In contrast to what some of our politicians tried to make it seem like these past months, maybe supporting the army is to understand that discipline in the army is a matter of life and death, and that it’s not for them to break with over Facebook, and that there’s a time and an appropriate place to criticize and to break with the Chief of Staff’s word. Facebook is not one of them.
The second question we need to ask is what is stronger for us: The idea of, “If someone comes to kill you, rise up and kill him first,” or our human dignity, democracy, and law enforcement. The IDF and the courthouse decided. Now it’s our society’s time to do a lot of thinking and deciding about who we want to be. It’s hard sometimes, to do something so opposite of how the heart feels. It’s not easy to keep reminding ourselves what is the meaning of saving a terrorist’s life, against any humane emotions. Yes, he’s a terrorist, yes he tried to kill your friend, and if he could wake up right now he would do it again. But lying there on the ground, he’s also a human that deserves medical treatment and a fair trial like anyone else. Taking that away from him just because we can will not only ruin his life, but will ruin us with him as well.
On a personal note, I think the day of the verdict was a great day for Israeli democracy. We showed (first of all to ourselves) what our values are and how determined we are to reinforce them. But it’s also a very hard day for Israel society. The division is large, and there are core decisions that we made a long time ago, that we now need to affirm and make once again. I wish for us good decisions, and most of all times when we - and more importantly our children - won’t have to live through times that require contemplation of these questions on a daily basis.
With lots of love and appreciation to all of our soldiers out there, that saving our life every day, dealing with impossible situations and even when it’s hard taking the right decisions.