Opinion

What the Hebron Shooter's Trial Is Really All About

A testimony at the trial of Elor Azaria, the soldier who killed a subdued Palestinian assailant in Hebron, reveals that the real battle taking place isn't about the army's values.

Israel Defense Forces soldier Elor Azaria, the so-called Hebron shooter, with his lawyer in the courtroom in Jaffa, on Aug. 28, 2016.
Nir Keidar

Eliyahu Liebman’s title, security officer of Hebron’s Jewish community, is misleading. Liebman — who testified in the defense of Elor Azaria in a trial that has come to symbolize the struggle between the right and the left, the army and the settlers, the chief of staff and the ousted defense minister on one hand and the prime minister and certain cabinet members on the other hand — represents a nation. The nation of the settlers, which has placed itself as a fortified wall against principles the army purports to uphold.

This nation has a diaspora, the State of Israel. Liebman is part of a dynasty that, to many, represents the core of the settlement movement. His father, Rabbi Menachem Liebman, was among the founders of Kiryat Arba, and he stood with Rabbi Moshe Levinger in the center of Hebron and urged soldiers to refuse the “illegal orders” to remove settlers from the city center and from Avraham Avinu Synagogue. His brother Yehuda was one of the founders of Yitzhar. His brother Shlomo was killed in a terror attack in that settlement. His brother David, from the settlement of Tapuah, was part of the “new Jewish underground” that was active in 2003 and was suspected of murdering nine Palestinians.

In his testimony, Liebman castigated the defense minister and assailed the military prosecutor. Yet he was awarded a commendation by the chief of staff for his initiative and actions during a terror attack on Worshiper’s Way in Hebron. Twelve Israelis died in the attack, including Col. Dror Weinberg.

The Liebmans represent the destructive symbiosis between the Israel Defense Forces and the settlers — a symbiosis that has resulted in repeated concessions to settlement leaders, long before the advent of the “hilltop youth.”

The families that constitute the “nobility,” the “Mayflower descendants,” of the settlement movement, including Tor, Levinger, Liebman, Felix, Livni, Katzover and Porat, laid the foundations for the political battle against the army. They are an elite to which military orders are meaningless, and that succeeded in establishing a culture of disobedience.

It is of no consequence whatsoever whether Liebman’s testimony helps or hurts Azaria, who is nothing but a pawn that can be sacrificed. What matters is the content of his testimony: “There are those who think that if you shoot an assailant and he falls to the ground, then he is neutralized. It’s possible to neutralize an assailant in two ways: by firing at his torso and then a neutralizing bullet to the head or, in cases where the assailant has been examined by a sapper, he’s declared ‘clean’ and restrained by the hands and the feet.”

Liebman stressed that he doesn’t accept the brigade commander’s orders, which allow a terrorist to be given medical treatment once he’s declared “clean” (that is, no longer considered dangerous) even without waiting for a sapper. But he wasn’t conducting a tactical argument with the brigade commander, or with the army as a whole, on this issue; he was speaking in the name of a policy, strategy and tradition that has been etched in stone by the settlers’ nation. The IDF and its orders can go jump in the lake.

In the face of this tradition, the army can do nothing. The uphill battle being waged by Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Gadi Eisenkot against the rabbis and the rabbinate, in favor of education rather than preaching, is marginal compared to the battle against the culture of the settlements, which threatens the army’s ability to control its soldiers. This is a culture of rebellion and refusal to accept authority, which is liable to undermine the government’s ability to rely on the army.

Liebman’s testimony wasn’t about the techniques of neutralizing terrorists, but about the principles of surrender by an army that still insists on demonstrating signs of independence. If Liebman’s father and his colleagues subjugated the army via the government, the generation of Liebman and his sons no longer needs the government, which it scorns. This is a generation that already has soldiers and commanders of its own within the army.

Their battle isn’t over values; it’s not about the contradiction between what is still termed “the IDF’s values” and the values of the settler nation. Rather, it’s a battle for control over the one state institution that can legitimately employ violence.