Analysis

Supporters of Convicted Hebron Shooter Elor Azaria Also Seek Justice

It’s hard to avoid the feeling that the reason Azaria’s action was accepted so calmly by others on the scene, as the videos of the incident shows, is because that’s the way it’s done.

A supporter of Sgt. Elor Azaria, convicted of manslaughter in the deadly shooting of an incapacitated Palestinian attacker, holds a sign that reads 'Free Elor,' Tel Aviv, January 4, 2017.
Oded Balilty/AP

“Shalit, who fell asleep on guard duty, is everyone’s son. Elor, who stopped a wave of terror by himself, is not everyone’s son. Go figure,” someone wrote on Facebook.

A sign held aloft during the demonstration outside the military court in Tel Aviv during the reading of the verdict in the Elor Azaria case read, “Terrorist = victim?! A defensive soldier = murderer?! Only in Israel.”

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That’s how the “soldier-shooter in Hebron” case has been framed by Azaria’s supporters. The support Azaria has from a very large portion of the Israeli public is not in their view a mass abandonment of the moral sphere, but a demand for true justice. For them, the ones who have lost their moral bearings are those who ruled that to kill a terrorist in an incident on duty (while deviating from regulations) is a crime.

Even if the court was not addressing the Israel Defense Forces’ values and wasn’t dealing explicitly with the question of “is it justified to kill assailants even when they no longer pose a danger?” and even if those who defend the decision to charge Azaria with manslaughter believe the debate was only about the existence or nonexistence of circumstances that justify the killing of an attacker by an IDF soldier, the judges, against their will, ended up ruling on a matter that goes beyond Azaria’s specific circumstances. The answers to the questions posed by the sign at the demonstration are “Yes,” and “Indeed.” In the State of Israel, under certain circumstances, a terrorist can be a victim and a defensive soldier can be a murderer. There is no inherent contradiction.

What the soldiers who support Azaria have said to Chief of General Staff Gadi Eisenkot is that they hear him telling them that in today’s Israel, it’s better to be kidnapped by terrorists than to kill a terrorist while violating the rules of engagement. What the mothers of the soldiers are shouting is that they hear the defense establishment saying that it’s prepared to release more than 1,000 terrorists for an IDF soldier who “fell asleep on guard duty,” while renouncing a soldier who “stopped a wave of terror by himself.”

Read more on Azaria verdict: How the judges unraveled Elor Azaria's defense | Why the Hebron shooter trial is dividing Israel | Netanyahu threw army under the bus / Analysis | Enemies of Israeli republic suffer setback / Analysis  | Hebron soldier Elor Azaria is no hero / Analysis | Israel's ruling party more dangerous than pro-Azaria mob / Analysis  | Hebron shooter convicted, but those responsible will never be put to trial / Analysis | The death throes of a healthy society / Opinion

Among his supporters there are those who don’t consider him a hero, but believe that even if he made an error in judgment, that doesn’t turn him into a criminal since in principle he was a soldier who shot a terrorist during a military operation. This is a two-sided struggle for Israel’s moral image. And because that’s the case, it isn’t clear at all that the verdict will end that struggle. The support for Azaria goes way beyond the violent core that demonstrated on Wednesday.

Eisenkot's reading of Israeli views

Eisenkot’s measured, statesmanlike comments show he doesn’t believe there’s a need to revise the rules of engagement in the territories, and that they are relevant to the war against terror as well. By convicting Azaria, the military court essentially gave new validity to the IDF’s values. But it would be dangerous to ignore Eisenkot’s remarks this summer to the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, in which he clearly identifies a gap between the IDF’s values and those disseminated by the politicians.

“They say the IDF is wimpy; that’s simply a lie,” Eisenkot told the MKs. “We want the IDF to operate in accordance with orders, the rules of engagement, the IDF spirit and IDF values. If someone prefers a gang ethos, let him say so.”

In his remarks Tuesday, which were directed at the public more than at the army, it’s clear Eisenkot is concerned by the gap between the IDF’s values and those of the public. With his sensitive ear he heard what the public is thinking, the connection it was making between the Azaria case and that of Gilad Shalit, and the conclusions it was drawing from the different approach that each case’s central figures got from “the system” on its scale of values. But what about the value gaps within the IDF? The videos of the shooting show that Azaria’s firing at the wounded assailant was accepted by those at the scene with equanimity. How many people charged at him after he fired? How many ran to grab the weapon from him? How many people disturbed by gunfire were scurrying around? How much yelling was heard on the radio?

If everyone was so certain that he’d made a mistake, why didn’t his company commander stop everything, confiscate the soldier’s weapon and call the Military Police to the scene? How does a simple soldier even get up the guts to fire at a neutralized terrorist with his commander standing right there?

It’s hard to avoid the feeling that the reason Azaria’s action was accepted so calmly is because that’s the way it’s done. There must be an effort to understand the concept of “that’s how it’s done,” to understand how strongly entrenched it has to be for things to happen that way. In every exceptional incident the “wild weed” effect is reinvented. No one in the IDF knew that that’s how it’s done? Is everyone so innocent? If so, then just throw Elor Azaria into prison. That’s where he belongs, no?