Hebron Shooter's Sentence: Israel's Military Fell Prey to the Raging Mob

The judges in the Elor Azaria case sent a discouraging message to IDF officers: Don’t act like fools. The message to soldiers? Don’t be afraid to pull the trigger.

Israelis demonstrate outside the defence ministry in Tel Aviv on February 21, 2017, during a protest in support of Israeli soldier Elor Azaria, who shot dead a wounded Palestinian assailant he lay on the ground, while they wait for the verdict in a case that deeply divided the country and set off political tensions.

The Rabin camp – the headquarters of the prime minister when he's in Tel Aviv, and of the defense minister and chief of staff, and the seat of the army's Supreme Command – was defeated Tuesday in a fierce political attack, falling prey to a charging mob.

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The Israel Defense Forces surrendered, while pretending to hang on. The military judges did not withstand the pressure, whether because of direct threats or because they did not want to volunteer be scapegoats when facing higher instances – either the Military Appeals Court, or in the event of a presidential pardon – that would make them look overly severe.

If the affair finishes thus, when in one year – after a one-third of his sentence has been cancelled due to good behavior – Elor Azaria walks free, then the soldiers supporters have won and the IDF, up to and including Chief of Staff Gadi Eisenkot and former Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon, have lost.

It was not to imprison for a year a soldier who was convicted of manslaughter did Ya’alon, Eisenkot and the top brass confront all of Israel's right wing. Instead of a discouraging message to soldiers to pay heed to orders concerning when to open fire and how to distinguish between acceptable targets and circumstances, and harming civilians and even helpless enemies – the judges sent a discouraging message to IDF officers: Don’t act like fools, like Lt.-Col David Shapira, the battalion commander, and Maj. Tom Na’aman, the company commander. To the soldiers was sent an encouraging message: Don’t be afraid to pull the trigger, the shot is liberating, at worst you’ll sit for a year in jail.

Soldier Elor Azaria after being sentenced for shooting and killing a wounded and supine Palestinian assailant, Feb. 21, 2017.
Tomer Appelbaum

Perhaps Col. Maya Heller and her colleagues on the bench naively believe that they have produced two documents that display apparent balance – a reasoned conviction, which tore the defense’s version to shreds, and a merciful punishment. If so, they are gravely wrong: Only the bottom line matters and it is unequivocal and feeble – a surrender.

>> Why the Hebron Shooter Trial Is Dividing Israel

The hero-ization of Azaria, with the full backing of such personages as Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman and former lawmaker Sharon Gal, is from now on the point of departure for any legal procedure, military or civilian. There’s no point in plea bargains: The soundtrack is more important than the movie. It has been proved that the system can be bent. That it is attentive to the loudest and most violent shouting.

The distress of the slightly less than extreme right, which is being devoured by the even more extreme right that claims it is too moderate, is no comfort. The trigger has defeated justice.