By sheer coincidence, Israel Defense Forces Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Gadi Eisenkot appeared before the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee in Jerusalem on Tuesday at the exact time that the cross-examination of Sgt. Elor Azaria resumed in a military court in Jaffa. Azaria is facing a charge of manslaughter after allegedly killing a subdued Palestinian terrorist in Hebron in March.
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Eisenkot would no doubt have guessed in advance that the Knesset members would ask him about the Azaria case, which has been hanging over Eisenkot for almost four months. Even though the number of terrorist attacks in the West Bank has dropped significantly, the dispute concerning Azaria continues loudly. The incident in Hebron, which accelerated the crisis that led to former Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon leaving his post two months ago, continues to keep the public and politicians busy.
Eisenkot has been troubled by the declarations of support for Azaria by ministers and MKs, opinion polls that show clear support for Azaria’s action and the possible influence that these will have on the public’s faith in the IDF. Worried, but Eisenkot refuses to soften his positions accordingly.
As is his way, Eisenkot spoke out clearly. “If someone wants the ethos of a gang, they should say so,” he told the committee. The external intervention in the inquiry and the military justice system is undesirable, but will not influence the way the military acts, he said. The IDF will continue to act based on the existing open-fire regulations, its values and the document laying out the spirit of the IDF, said Eisenkot.
In addition to his attempt to stop the political spin around the Azaria trial, Eisenkot defended the IDF’s policies in the West Bank. He said a determined response to terrorism, combined with efforts to differentiate between terrorists and the Palestinian population and the preservation of values is what has brought about the relative reduction in terror attacks, compared to the beginning of the year. To those who have been attacking the IDF from the right about its supposed weakness, Eisenkot said: “We have killed 166 terrorists in the West Bank since October 2015 and arrested over 3,200 Palestinians.”
In other words, the IDF and Shin Bet security service are now using aggressive pressure that has gradually brought results in reducing terrorism, but these are things that must be done carefully and with due consideration, without losing control.
Back at the trial
In the meantime, the third and last day of the cross-examination of Azaria ended with a certain amount of embarrassment for the defense.
The prosecutor, and in his wake the judges, focused on the seeming contradictions in the soldier’s testimony. Azaria claims that even after he fired he was unable to warn those present of the explosive device he suspected the terrorist was carrying on his body, because he was so emotional. But Maya Heller, the head of the three-judge panel hearing the case, called Azaria’s attention to a video clip of the incident in which he is seen , while the terrorist’s body is being taken away, shaking hands with Hebron settler leader Baruch Marzel and speaking with civilian medic Ofer Ohana.
Azaria did not succeed in explaining why the witnesses, who he said he told about his suspicions of an explosive device immediately after the incident, did not mention it in their testimony to the Military Police investigators or in court.
Two of the judges criticized Azaria’s evasion of all questions relating to the video clip filmed by a B’Tselem photographer and his actions in it.
Azaria did not manage to indicate any point during the clip in which he felt in real danger, or explain when he decided to shoot the wounded terrorist lying on the ground. Heller wondered why he bothered to collect his helmet before the shooting and give it to one of the members of his company. Azaria explained he feared someone would take his helmet – a fear that does not fit in with the greater fear he spoke about that the terrorist might have an explosive device on him.
While testifying in court, Azaria had a hard time bridging between the explanation given by his company commander and other soldiers that he wanted to shoot the terrorist in response to the attack on his friend and the later explanation he provided to the Military Police concerning his fear of an explosive device.
A close study of the developments in the trial so far indicates that Azaria is slowly sinking in quicksand. His lawyers could have chosen a different line of defense, emphasizing the feeling of danger he felt, his lack of operational experience and his shock at killing someone, all of which may have clouded his memory regarding the events that occurred after the shooting.
Instead, the defense chose a confrontational, argumentative line of defense. His lawyers and supporters presented Azaria as a hero, who saved his friends and commanders from great danger, at a time when everyone else present at the scene acted complacently and failed to understand what was happening. The entire chain of command, all the way up to Eisenkot, has been presented as liars trying to evade responsibility by dumping it all on the lowly sergeant. His extreme right wing supporters may be buying it, but the judges, officers in uniform and part of the system, may not.