One by one, with thoroughness and logic, Military Court President Judge Col. Maya Heller dissected the defense arguments in the trial of Sergeant Elor Azaria.
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The three–member panel of judges did not accept the account presented by the soldier’s attorneys — not the claim of self-defense, nor the fear expressed by Azaria a while after the shooting that the injured Palestinian assailant was hiding a knife or explosives. Nor the claim that the unusually heavy clothing he wore aroused suspicion that he was concealing something. Nor the testimonies of the Hebron settlers who came to the soldier's defense. Nor the attempt to cast doubt — with the help of a pathologist — on the connection between the shot fired by Azaria and the death of the prone Palestinian, Abdel Fattah al-Sharif.
The final outcome, Azaria’s conviction for manslaughter, is not much of a surprise. Not because the verdict was "fixed" from the start, as the soldier's supporters claim, but because the course of events was exceedingly clear to anyone who watched the B'tselem video publicized on the day of the incident itself, and to anyone who has any experience, as a soldier or even as a journalist, in the territories.
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What was recorded in the video was a live execution. Azaria was caught red-handed by the camera as he shot the incapacitated terrorist who lay on the ground. The soldier had trouble evading this, first in the military command investigation and later in the legal proceedings. To be certain, there were mitigating circumstances: He was a young combat soldier without any previous operative experience who got caught up in a fairly serious incident and was in a turbulent emotional state after seeing his comrade wounded and bleeding.
The defense’s insistence on trying to make the case that Azaria was really a hero and a model soldier — the only one who performed properly while the whole chain of command failed to identify the danger and subsequently sought to cover up its mishandling of things with lies and by blaming the lowest guy in the hierarchy — did not pass the test of logic. This, too, was clear from the start as has been pointed out here throughout the trial. The sole result of this strategy, aside from ensuring Azaria’s conviction, was to cement Azaria’s status, in the view of the right, as the victim of a malicious conspiracy. And of course, it also yielded a (surely unintended) publicity bonanza for his attorneys.
The soldier’s sentence will only be determined at a later date. It will likely be a light sentence. The Israeli legal system is generally forgiving toward soldiers who erred during military operations and hurt Palestinians, even if they flagrantly deviated from the rules of engagement, as occurred here. Meanwhile, there is already a campaign calling for the soldier to be pardoned.
It’s hard to believe that ministers and MKs from the deep right will break with custom and exercise caution. After all, a golden opportunity to easily curry public favor beckons. What lawmaker would rein himself in here, given the overall public mood? This time Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman wants to have his cake and eat it too. One one hand, he criticizes the decision to convict Azaria, and on the other hand, he calls for people to support the army and not attack its officers. (Just over nine months ago, Lieberman — then, an opposition member, was the most prominent and vocal critic of IDF Chief of Staff Gadi Eisenkot and the military judicial system for their handling of Azaria.)
Target of anger: Eisenkot
In the meantime, the one drawing the most fire, for supposedly intervening in the legal process, is Eisenkot. While speaking at the Interdisciplinary Center Herzliya on Tuesday, he had the audacity to mention two facts that should be clear to all. The first: that the IDF’s rules for soldiers regarding opening fire in the territories — which have not changed in more than a decade — provide them with appropriate tools for dealing with terror threats. The second: that an 18-year-old combat soldier is not “everybody’s child” but a well-trained and well-equipped man whom the state expects to demonstrate good judgment — and, if necessary, to endanger and even sacrifice his life in carrying out his duties. The mere statement of these simple facts — which was also criticism directed at the events that led to the kidnapping of soldier Gilad Shalit — was enough to trigger a furious Pavlovian response among those who have long accused Eisenkot of siding with the enemy.
As the chief of staff noted, in the past few months there has been a steep drop in the number of terror attacks in the territories. This did not happen, as some journalists sought to assert after the Hebron incident, because of the firm deterrence that the soldier Azaria demonstrated by his action. Things have calmed down, partially and temporarily to be sure, because the IDF has done a good job in addressing the threat (and not heeded the calls for panic by certain politicians); by careful and alert operational preparedness; by responding firmly when needed; by collecting intelligence, through security coordination with the Palestinian Authority; and by a concerted effort (not always successful) to uphold the rules for opening fire and avoid the killing of innocents.
Once the trial is over, the army will still have to contend with the episode’s numerous implications, including the troubling gap between the commanders’ views and those of many fighters and their parents concerning the dangers faced by soldiers and the proper way to handle them; the worrisome infiltration of outside influences — from social media to lawmakers — on military decision-making; and the damage caused by fraternizing of soldiers stationed in Hebron with some of the settlers' chief provocateurs in the city.
The public will soon move on to other things. The wearying daily grind of policing the territories and the relentless challenge it poses to the IDF’s declared values don’t interest anyone until a soldier is caught on camera. And the organizations that seek to expose this reality, like Breaking the Silence and B’tselem, will continue to be harassed and silenced by the authorities.
No convincing hardcore right
Azaria’s hardcore supporters, hundreds of whom demonstrated today between the Azrieli Mall and the military court in Tel Aviv, won’t be convinced by the judges’ words, or those of the chief of staff. An email circulated earlier this week by one of these right-wing organizations claimed that Judge Heller is a known extreme leftist who was only promoted in order to ensure a conviction, and that the military prosecutor, a reservist, was paid a million shekels by the IDF just to persecute Elor, the hero. Whoever believes such fabrications isn’t about to listen to the judge’s reasoning. Unfortunately, we now have cynical politicians pouring fuel onto this fire. This affair is not yet over. Continued fanning of the flames could further harm the army’s standing, even if, as Eisenkot has noted, a recent survey by the Israel Democracy Institute found that 90 percent of the public expressed faith in the army.
Azaria is not a hero. He is a soldier who was sent on a complex mission and acted wrongly, who reminded Israelis for a few moments of what their sons who serve in the occupied territories really face. The military had no choice but to try him — and will most likely show restraint when it comes to the sentencing phase.
On Wednesday, a true hero passed away. Major Hagai Ben-Ari, who was slated to take command of the paratroopers commando unit, was gravely wounded in Operation Protective Edge in the summer of 2014 and died of his injuries after a long hospitalization. Ben-Ari’s heroism is the one that should be admired, not the actions of the soldier who was convicted today in the Central Command military court.