Killing someone who does not pose a danger is a crime, whether the person is a criminal, enemy, terrorist or Nazi. The decision of how grave a crime depends on evidence, circumstances and the outlook of judges, as seen in the minority opinion of two military judges who sat on Elor Azaria’s appeal, and who viewed his killing of the wounded terrorist in Hebron as being closer to murder than manslaughter. If the killing is carried out by a soldier on active duty, as Azaria was, his act could be considered a war crime as well.
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This is the prism through which one should view the grotesque contest among many of Israel’s leaders over who will embrace Azaria more enthusiastically in order to appease a public that seems to embrace him even more than they do. Those like Benjamin Netanyahu, who support an immediate clemency for Azaria that would commute his sentence of 18 months in jail, are signaling that the intentional killing of a wounded terrorist is a trivial, almost technical offense, which in any case is understandable and forgivable. Those who maintain that a terrorist shouldn’t get out alive under any circumstances, as Naftali Bennett, Yair Lapid and Gilad Erdan have urged in the recent past, are taking it one step further. As far as they’re concerned, an action that is defined in criminal law as well as the Geneva Conventions as a serious offense should actually become the Israeli norm. Azaria, it turns out, should have been decorated instead of convicted. No wonder Likud MK Nava Boker lovingly called him “the child of us all.”
This is how those who consider themselves consummate patriots who constantly blast their rivals on the left as Israel’s defamers are portraying Israel as a criminal state in which extrajudicial killings are sanctioned and dictated by the government. Those who always blame others for any international criticism of Israel and who persecute groups such as Breaking the Silence and B’Tselem, the organization that provided the video which proved Azaria’s guilt, are handing Israel-haters a ready-made indictment at the International Criminal Court in The Hague. As the judges themselves noted in their verdict, the efforts to fend off attempts to prosecute Israeli officers for war crimes relies on the claim that Israel itself is capable and willing to investigate and prosecute crimes carried out by its soldiers. Undermining this defense by denying that a crime has been committed in the first place, the judges wrote, might drag IDF soldiers and officers, “including the most senior ones,” to international forums. Which might not bother Azaria’s supporters too much, since they will be attacking leftists and the New Israel Fund for such an anti-Semitic travesty no matter what.
Among such supporters there are those who rely on edicts issued by rabbis that, like the most fanatical fatwas of imams, provide Talmudic quotes and a religious basis for killing terrorists under any and all circumstances. Others are responding to the roar of the mob, which doesn’t know anything about criminal or international law and couldn’t care less anyway. Together they reflect the process of growing apathy towards values such as the purity of arms and the sanctity of life – or lack thereof, it seems, when dealing with Arabs. It reflects the continuing denial of the detrimental effects of long-term occupation, a concept that was mentioned only in passing but nonetheless bitingly in the court’s judgment. The Israel Defense Forces, the judges noted, was not built for occupation or for “extravagant displays of power that corrupts.”
The Azaria trial showcased how the Israeli army is, at the very least, trying to maintain a semblance of moral behavior under very difficult circumstances of fighting against terror and maintaining control over another people. Israel, on the other hand, emerges from the trial as a country whose society is finding it more and more difficult to distinguish between proper and improper conduct while its leaders recklessly tarnish its image, in the eyes of the world and of history itself.