This week it emerged that the manslaughter trial of Sgt. Elor Azaria had developed the characteristics of a historic event, in terms of its timing, resonance, symbolism and conflicting narratives. Only one thing is missing from the trial: context. The geographic and political background without which the preoccupation with details seems incomplete, almost secondary.
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This failure to contextualize is familiar and typical of Israeli society, but it still arouses amazement. Even restlessness and blindness are meant to have reasonable limits. If this is indeed a historic trial, then Azaria’s line of defense is meant to reflect what historians call “zeitgeist” – the spirit of the times.
It would have been best for Azaria to declare to the judges as follows:
I’m a simple soldier. Although I pulled the trigger and I must take responsibility for my actions, there were mitigating circumstances in the form of the spirit of the time and place. Let’s start with the place. I was stationed in Hebron, the place where in the name of our biblical patriarchal rights the State of Israel is mortgaging the existence and freedom of 200,000 Palestinians for the benefit of a handful of fanatical Jews. It was thus made clear to me that the lives and rights of innocent Palestinians are worthless. What was I meant to conclude about the life and rights of a Palestinian who was trying to kill my comrades?
Let’s address the spirit of the times. It’s been very confusing. Just before my trial began a military court exonerated the Binyamin Brigade commander who chased after a teenager who had thrown stones at his car and killed him with a shot in the back. A police volunteer who was filmed executing a neutralized terrorist on the Jaffa promenade was given a citation.
A force from my brigade that happened upon a stone-throwing incident opened fire on a Palestinian car without checking, killng a teenager and wounding his friends. At first it was announced that “significant measures” would be taken against them, but afterward it was announced that “the Military Police have launched an investigation.”
But most importantly, I was taught that the military establishment is merely the executive arm of the political leadership. And the political leadership was very clear. Everything is documented. Education Minister Naftali Bennett repeatedly declared, “You have to kill terrorists, not free them.” MK Yinon Magal said, “The neutralizing of a terrorist must end with his elimination.” Both were photographed carrying pistols, doing target practice and boasting when they hit the targets. Their colleague, MK Betzalel Smotrich, was firm, saying “A terrorist who goes out to murder Jews, no matter how old he is, will not return alive. Period.”
Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan declared, “Every terrorist has to know that he will not survive the attack he’s planning to carry out.” His security cabinet colleague Minister Yisrael Katz attacked the attempt by the chief of staff to clarify the rules of engagement, accusing him of weakness and of encouraging attacks. “Terrorists who attack Jews must not come out alive,” he stated.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu never said a word; as far as I’m concerned, that constituted silent agreement.
It isn’t even an issue of coalition and opposition. Yair Lapid said, “The instructions have to be very clear, if someone pulls out a knife or a screwdriver, you shoot to kill.” He added: “Our sages said, ‘If someone tries to kill you, kill him first,’ and that has to be the work model.” Avigdor Lieberman repeatedly demanded the death penalty for terrorists, until he was appointed defense minister, because of me.
Now, of course, they are all silent as lambs, because that’s how the right works. It incites, provokes, rides on the flames, and then flees responsibility and leaves the simple soldiers in the field. I request to be allowed to call them to the stand – all of them, every last one – as defense witnesses. That’s the only way to do historic justice.