The Era of Purity of Arms Has Ended

The exceptionally lenient sentence handed to Elor Azaria looks like it was tailored as a kind of political compromise, staining the fundamental norms that guide the military justice system.

Elor Azaria is embraced by his mother at the start of the sentencing hearing at a military court in Tel Aviv, February 21, 2017.

There are many significant differences between the legal system and the political system. One of them is that in court, one is supposed to make rational arguments, free of bluster, that will help the judges conduct a fair trial based on facts properly proven and the relevant legal norms.

But the exceptionally lenient sentence handed down on Tuesday in the case of soldier Elor Azaria – 18 months in prison, plus a suspended sentence and a demotion in rank – represents a serious deviation from the norms expected of the legal system by the military court that heard the case.

While the verdict, in which the court convicted Azaria of manslaughter, was constructed in exemplary fashion from the fundamental norms of the rule of law, Tuesday’s sentence looks like it was tailored as a kind of political compromise, and thereby stains the fundamental norms that guide the military justice system.

An army that imposes a sentence of just a year and a half in jail on a soldier who killed a terrorist who was already mortally wounded doesn’t just send a message of contempt for human life, but also one that threatens the Palestinian population of the territories, because the soldiers who carry out policing functions there are now liable to have light trigger fingers, and the army will refrain from calling them to any real account.

The military court isn’t the only guilty party in the travesty of the case’s final chord. The military prosecution, which made do with seeking a lenient sentence to begin with, plus a long list of right-wing politicians who tried to incite the public against the legal system, also influenced the final result. And now, those who see a hero in every soldier who pulls the trigger on a Palestinian, regardless of whether he did so legally or illegally, are urging that even this nominal sentence imposed on Azaria be softened, and that the soldier either be pardoned or have his sentence commuted.

Yet the damage done by the stain the military court has cast on generations of jurists who strove to inculcate the principles of the rule of law in the ranks of the Israel Defense Forces does not end there. The sentence didn’t merely capitulate to the populism of the political right by including irrelevant considerations. It also, to a great extent, constituted a declaration that the era of purity of arms has ended in the IDF – the very purity of arms that leads politicians to boast of the IDF and call it “the most moral army in the world.”

If Azaria decides to appeal his conviction and sentence, the military prosecution ought to submit an appeal of its own and seek a stiffer sentence for the soldier convicted of manslaughter. The Israeli justice system, including the military justice system, must send an unequivocal message to both Israeli society and the entire world that the IDF operates within the bounds of the rule of law.