Israel's Military Chief to Lawmakers: Don't Pressure Army on Pardoning Hebron Shooter

Chief of Staff Gadi Eisenkot accuses politicians of lying about his conduct in the case of Sgt. Elor Azaria, who shot and killed a prone Palestinian attacker in Hebron.

IDF Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Gadi Eisenkot at the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, February 22, 2017.
Olivier Fitoussi

Israel's military chief asked politicians to refrain from interfering in legal proceedings following the sentencing of Sgt. Elor Azaria, an Israeli soldier convicted of manslaughter for the shooting and killing of a wounded Palestinian attacker in Hebron. Calls to pardon Azaria, he said, would not influence the army's decision.

Lt. Gen. Gadi Eisenkot told a Knesset panel that lawmakers should not pressure or try to influence the decision on whether to pardoning Azaria, who was sentenced on Tuesday for 18 months in prison. Lawmakers calling for Azaria to be pardoned know it would not influence the military, Eisenkot told lawmakers on the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee.

"These proceedings are internal as everyone is aware," he said. "The army has an orderly process," Eisenkot said. "It should happen in the military and not here (in the Knesset)."

Remarks by politicians relating to the Azaria affair hurt the military, the soldier and the public, Eisenkot added, noting that the debate was accompanied by "manipulations and lies." Eisenkot backed the military's conduct in the affair. 

Earlier, Eisenkot accused politicians of lying about his involvement in the Hebron shooting case. In the weeks following the shooting incident in Hebron, he said, a number of politicians attacked him in the media and lied about his involvement in the investigation and legal proceedings.

"Three politicians went on the air and lied about my involvement," Eisenkot told the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee on Wednesday.

"According to a Knesset member who participated in the discussion, even in this committee there were those who attacked me for an intervention that didn’t take place for things I didn’t do. I was called different names and was compared in all sorts of comparisons," he said.

"During all of this time, the army conducted itself as it should have regarding purity of arms and the IDF spirit. I spoke out publicly on the issue only five weeks after the Hebron incident... you can check that. I did it because I was forced to respond to accusations from politicians."

During the panel meeting, lawmaker Amir Ohana (Likud) told Eisenkot that the committee had received a report on an internal army review containing data showing that the conduct during the Azaria affair had influenced soldiers' fighting spirit. A lawmaker present at the meeting said Eisenkot refuted the claim.

"There have been 200 shooting incidents since the Azaria affair, soldiers weren’t influenced [by it] and acted correctly," Eisenkot said.

At one point during the meeting, a dispute broke out between the lawmakers, and especially between Ohana and Elazar Stern (Yesh Atid), resulting in shouting matches. Committee chairman Avi Dichter (Likud) banged the table with his mallet and stopped the meeting for a couple of minutes until all sides had calmed down.

Last month, a day before the verdict in Azaria's trial, Eisenkot said that “an 18-year-old who enlists in the IDF isn’t everyone’s child, he isn’t a baby who was taken prisoner. He’s a fighter, he’s a soldier, he’s called on to put his life on the line.”

Speaking at an Interdisciplinary Center Herzliya conference, Eisenkot added that "We make a very clear distinction. Even when the waves grow higher and there's a lively public debate, we make a distinction between the realm of command and the legal realm."

On Tuesday, the judges reading out Azaria's verdict also commented on top defense officials during the affair then-Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon, Chief of Staff Gadi Eisenkot and IDF spokesman Moti Almoz, who now currently heads the Manpower Directorate.

"There can be no argument that the senior military leadership is allowed and even obligated to convey a clear and immediate stance on issues on the public agenda,” the judges wrote. "But when relating to events still under criminal investigation, one should wait until the picture arising from the investigation becomes clear."