The Israel Defense Forces, probably the best army in the world, has made a mistake. Four months ago Sgt. Elor Azaria fired at a wounded Palestinian terrorist, Abdel Fattah al-Sharif, lying prostrate on the ground after being shot during a terrorist attack in the Tel Rumeida neighborhood of Hebron. Azaria was hastily charged with murder and the charge was thereafter reduced to manslaughter. He has been standing trial for the past three months. Instead of putting him on trial the army should have quickly conducted an investigation of the incident, reprimanded Azaria if that was called for, and made sure that all soldiers were made fully aware of the regulations regarding opening fire under similar circumstances, thus closing this chapter.
Resisting the temptation of making public pronouncements on the incident may have been difficult at the time, after a local Palestinian resident, using a movie camera provided him by B’Tselem, photographed the incident and B’Tselem made sure that his photos appeared on television worldwide. Nevertheless, it should have been clear to the army brass that it was important to contain this incident by an internal investigation to ascertain the facts, rather than increasing its national and international exposure. That was the inevitable result of the immediate condemnations of Azaria issued by the defense minister and high army brass before the investigation had even started, bringing forth public responses and demonstrations in support of Azaria.
The temptation to make “holier than thou” pronouncements emphasizing the high moral standards of the IDF (probably unequaled by any other army) may be understandable but was mistaken. It turned what may have been an error committed by a young soldier doing his compulsory military service into a public relations festival that took months to wind down. That hopefully is now clear to all in retrospect.
What happened in Hebron that day has no doubt happened many times to soldiers in the armies of democratic countries engaged in similar situations. It has certainly happened in the IDF in its long history of combating Israel’s enemies. Young soldiers may err in responding to situations that may involve danger which suddenly confronts them. During the recent months of violence, when Israelis were being attacked in the street by Palestinian terrorists out to kill, it may have happened more than once that an Israeli soldier or policeman or policewoman feeling threatened may have shot to kill a terrorist when wounding the terrorist might have been sufficient to incapacitate him or her.
It is not easy to judge a young soldier’s response under such circumstances. Such incidents should be investigated by the army, but should not be turned into public trials. The lessons learned should be transmitted to the soldiers who may face such situations in the future. There is no need for pronouncements to be issued to the public at large.
At this point the results of Azaria’s trial have become almost irrelevant. Everybody who matters – the former and present defense ministers, the chief of staff, politicians and other notables – have already had their say, and they are not likely to retract their remarks regardless of the outcome. The damage has already been done.
The fact is that young soldiers having to contend with terrorist incidents sometimes are unable to take the right decision in a moment of stress. The IDF has nothing to be ashamed of regarding the behavior of its young soldiers in combat engagements. We would like to continue to serve as an example to others, but do not have to shame young inexperienced soldiers in order to do so.
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