The Elor Azaria case has had the country in an uproar for the last 16 months and revealed deep divisions in society, the army and the political system. The case became a focal point for great resentment over the division of moral responsibility for military activity in the territories, and exposed a bitter dispute over the question of what is permissible and what forbidden in the war on terror. None of this has been resolved.
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The Military Court of Appeals, in hearing appeals by both the prosecution and the defense of the verdict in the case of Sgt. Azaria, had a rare opportunity to drive home a moral edict of supreme importance: the illegality of using weapons against a dying enemy, of shooting in anger to take revenge, of violating discipline and the rules of engagement.
Three of the five judges – overriding the two dissenting judges, who rightly wanted to stiffen Azaria’s sentence – said all the right words, but their actions contradict their words. Lofty rhetoric has no meaning when the price set for taking a human life is 18 months in jail. Had a Jewish terrorist been shot in similar circumstances and such a sentence been imposed on the shooter, no Israeli would have accepted it with understanding.
The dispute that divides Israeli society apparently affected the judges and caused them to fear public opinion, the politicians and the next steps in the process – the Israel Defense Forces’ chief of staff and the state president, who are liable to be lenient, and will then be depicted as the merciful ones, in contrast to the cruel judges.
Courage isn’t tested only on the battlefield. One also expects it of judges who hold senior military ranks, including two who are major generals. But Azaria’s judges failed this test in both the trial court and the appellate court. They judged with one eye on the world, which doubts Israeli justice, and the other eye on Azaria’s numerous supporters, who believe in his innocence.
Azaria was convicted of manslaughter, but the lenient sentence he received undercuts the severity of the crime. What message has Israeli society sent via its judges to the soldier now serving in the territories, or the civilian who will be drafted into compulsory service or called up for reserve duty tomorrow? That manslaughter is a minor error?
The bottom line still hasn’t been written. It’s waiting for the chief of staff, Lt. Gen. Gadi Eisenkot. Until now, Eisenkot has behaved differently from other senior officers who spoke forgivingly of Azaria’s crime. But like the judges, Eisenkot will be judged by his deeds, not his words.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman and other populists are trying to apply political pressure on the chief of staff to get him to exercise his authority on behalf of the soldier who killed. For all of our sakes, Eisenkot must ignore them and thereby put an end to this miserable affair.
The above article is Haaretz's lead editorial, as published in the Hebrew and English newspapers in Israel.