To Shoot or Not to Shoot? Simulator Puts IDF Trainees in Elor Azaria's Shoes

Israeli troops deployed in the West Bank are trained stay cool under pressure, but in the moment of truth they face the dissonance between the army’s rules of engagement and the 'Hebron law,' which dictates shooting first and explaining later.

Soldier Elor Azaria attends his trial at the Jaffa Military Court on Tuesday, July 26, 2016.
Nir Keidar

The simulator facility at one of the Israeli army’s infantry training bases is screening a film. It was shot at a site that’s all-too-familiar from many years of reserve duty in the occupied territories: the “Magen 50” Junction, southwest of the Ariel settlement. A fatal shooting incident occurred at this army checkpoint in the 1990s. The soldiers stationed there are meant to be prepared for any dangers, including stabbing attacks.

A soldier at the facility has sensors attached to a Tavor rifle, and the film he’s watching is very realistic. It looks like a small military force, whose commander turns to the soldier at the checkpoint and explains his mission to him. The commander and another soldier will stop Palestinian cars passing through the junction for inspection. The soldier-in-training is the security guard. He has to monitor events and protect his comrades while the commander and another soldier check the Palestinians.

Any soldier who has performed routine operational duties in the territories will be familiar with the inspection. But then, in the film, one of the Palestinians pulls out a knife and stabs the commander several times. The trainee soldier has to react. The entire incident takes only a few seconds. Afterward, his instructors will analyze his actions with him. When did he first shoot? How many bullets did he fire? Did he hit the assailant? Did he pay attention that the terrorist threw away his knife while fleeing? Did he manage to avoid shooting his wounded commander?

The people on screen are, of course, actors — both the commander and the Palestinians. They are all members of a civilian company that operates the simulators and films a variety of scenarios for the army, for practice purposes.

But it is all very realistic, including your increased heartbeat when you need to open fire and are trying to select the right target within the ensuing chaos. Every infantry soldier is supposed to undergo this exercise during his training. Most of them will do so again before embarking on operational service in the territories.

It is not exactly a simulator named after Sgt. Elor Azaria — even if the Hebron incident in which Azaria allegedly shot and killed a prone Palestinian assailant, Abdel Fattah al-Sharif, in March raised awareness of the problem among commanders.

These exercise simulators were actually introduced onto training bases a few years ago. But late last year, after the violence escalated in the territories, their use was expanded. Battalion commanders see them as a vital step before soldiers go on the front line in the West Bank.

Even when the scandals of shut-down Shabbat trains and a collapsed parking garage keep the public and media busy, the Azaria affair continues to cast a long shadow this summer. It’s doubtful if there’s a more charged political issue in Israel today, one that arouses such bitter ideological conflict and social tension.

At the Central Command’s military tribunal, in Jaffa’s Green House, the defense testimony has been given. According to the reporters covering Azaria’s manslaughter trial, the testimonies repeat themselves: Witnesses reinforce Azaria’s version that Sharif still posed a danger to life. They attack the behavior of the commanders in the incident, and sometimes take aim at the security establishment leadership.

The cross-examination phase has begun now, with the picture mostly being turned upside down. The prosecutor, Gen. (res.) Nadav Weisman, engages in methodical and aggressive dismantling of the testimonies. He reveals past failures that some of the witnesses would prefer not to discuss, or undermines the relevance of various opinions about the incident.

Weisman is also trying to eliminate claims about any faults in the commanders’ investigation, arguing that the behavior of commanders after the event is unrelated to Azaria’s actual act — the shooting of Sharif — and the considerations that led him to shoot.

Israel Defense Forces soldiers searching a Palestinian in Hebron, December 2015.
Gil Cohen Magen

The Hebron law

It seems the most significant witness the defense team called was Eliyahu Liebman, the long-standing security officer of Hebron’s Jewish community.

Liebman, who was awarded a citation after returning into danger time and again to pull out the killed and wounded in a 2002 terror attack in which 12 Jews were murdered, is a reserve lieutenant colonel who amassed much experience in incidents in the territories.

However, his testimony, like those of other settlers, also highlighted the gap between “Hebron laws” and the army’s rules of engagement.

While the military leadership — the Israel Defense Forces chief of staff, Military Advocate General and commanders — is trying to enforce existing rules, civilians testifying on behalf of the defense team claim they are not right.

Hebron settlers, who can influence soldiers and junior commanders stationed in the big city, present a singular and simplistic attitude: If there’s any doubt, there’s no doubt — better to shoot first and explain later, rather than unnecessarily risk the lives of Israeli civilians and soldiers.

Still, it seems Weisman managed to dispel some of the claims being made by the defense team and its witnesses. The fact that cameras show many of those present wearing jackets, including Liebman, contradicts the claim that the assailant wearing a jacket on such a warm day suggested he might be concealing a bomb. Also, the sense of imminent danger — about which many of the defense witnesses testified — is called into doubt given the footage at the scene, which shows relaxed behavior by the soldiers and their commanders.

There is a degree of pretense to the entire judicial process. It is quite clear that over the years — in the territories, as well as in the security zone in southern Lebanon — there were many instances in which soldiers opened fire too soon because of a misplaced or exaggerated sense of danger; or greater firepower was used than was necessary; or a terrorist was shot in the head from short range and killed after the danger had been eradicated. In a great number of these events, the doubts were aired in a quick operational investigation and then forgotten. Only in a few instances were there prosecutions.

Azaria’s case is also remarkable given the events of the past year, most notably when the investigation against a former Binyamin Brigade commander, Col. Yisrael Shomer — who shot and killed a 17-year-old Palestinian stone thrower last year — was closed in April without any disciplinary or criminal proceedings.

Now the Military Police and Military Advocate General are handling two sensitive cases: a Kfir Brigade officer who accidentally killed a Palestinian youth near Route 443 in June; and an incident in which a Palestinian civilian was killed near the West Bank village of Silwad by a Kfir Brigade sergeant two weeks ago. It is likely that both these cases will also lead to criminal trials. But they are the exception: In the vast majority of incidents like these, the army sees a misunderstanding or a dispute over the interpretation of the rules of engagement and prefers to handle them behind closed doors.

It’s only very rarely that a soldier will be judged in a criminal trial for killing a Palestinian. This is for two reasons: First, the difficulty in objectively defining the sense of danger in operational circumstances. The second (and main) reason is the fear that the IDF will be perceived as abandoning its soldiers. These were the same considerations faced by the military prosecutor’s office during the first intifada, in the late 1980s.

The Azaria case is exceptional on two counts. First, he arrived at the scene after the stabbing occurred and, according to the military investigation, shot Sharif 11 minutes after the assailant had been shot and immobilized by his fellow officers.

Relying on only a few witnesses, the prosecution claims that Azaria initially told his commanders and other soldiers he had killed the assailant to take revenge on the man who had stabbed his friend. His claims of being fearful of a knife, and afterward a bomb that the suspect might have had on his person, apparently only arose for the first time after discussions with his father and his lawyer, a few hours later. Second, all of this unfolded in front of B’Tselem’s rolling cameras and greatly embarrassed the top brass.

Israeli soldiers stand near the body of a Palestinian who was shot and killed by a soldier while laying wounded on the ground after a stabbing attack, Hebron, West Bank, March 24, 2016.
AP

The military’s handling of the affair wasn’t error-free, either. The unequivocal declarations by former Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon and the IDF leadership in the immediate hours after the incident could be perceived as rushing to judgment. And the cuffs that the accused was shackled with in the first court hearing were excessive, as was mentioning that he might be charged with murder (quickly downgraded to manslaughter).

The common argument in the media in recent weeks has been that the trial is also excessive and the military prosecution erred when it avoided a plea bargain, which would have spared the army embarrassment. However, it’s doubtful whether the defense was prepared at the beginning of the trial for a plea bargain that would have also been acceptable to the prosecution.

More importantly, for all the discomfort involved in the exchange of accusations between the commanders and soldiers within the battalion, perhaps it’s good that this abscess be burst in court and also presents the public with a more credible picture (even if it is extreme) of what is involved in maintaining the Israeli occupation regime.

IDF Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Gadi Eisenkot called it right, saying the choice here is between the ethos of a gang/armed militia and the behavior of an army. Elor Azaria forces Israeli society to stare directly into the mirror. And it wouldn’t hurt those politicians reciting the mantra that Israel is the most moral army in the world to take a look at how things are sometimes handled in the territories.