Elor Azaria sits to hear his verdict in a military court in Tel Aviv, Israel, January 4, 2017.
On this sad week, when Elor Azaria inevitably was convicted of manslaughter in the Hebron shooting case, clear thinking must prevail. No one should demonize the military court, or the poor soldier, or Israelis calling for Azaria to be pardoned. The only devils in this story are the two terrorists who started it all.
In fact, the entire saga is merely a minor incident in Israel’s long war against Palestinian terrorism – blown way out of proportion.
The incident should have been handled through quick and sharp disciplinary action at the field level, or settled in criminal arbitration (as suggested by the court but rejected by the prosecution), or plea-bargained to a quick end – as I argued in these pages in September.
It should have been about “unauthorized shooting in an operational situation,” not about murder or manslaughter of a Palestinian terrorist. It should not have been allowed to balloon into a global trial of Israel’s morals, with half the country indicted for fanaticism by the wayside.
Unfortunately, the army brass and extreme left-wing politicians made this incident into a grand morality play about the ethics of Israel. They wrongly turned Azaria from a dumb fella from Ramle who acted angrily and wobbly where he shouldn’t have, into an unscrupulous fundamentalist who purposefully plowed into a terrorist scene in order re-educate Israelis about fighting terrorism.
Some radical columnists ridiculously charged that Azaria was out to “help the extremist right-wing capture the country.”
By running a wildly-over-the-top criminal trial against Azaria, the General Staff has given Israel a black eye, and risked evisceration of the will among combat troops to engage the enemy. If every soldier has to fear full-court criminal prosecution for taking initiative in dangerous situations, Israel will be left with no defenders.
Of course, this is exactly the reason why those around the world who wish ill to Israel have cast such a spotlight on this episode.
AT THIS TENSE MOMENT, let’s remind ourselves and the world of some moral truths.
1. Let it be noted regarding that day in Hebron last March – indeed, regarding every day of the recent stabbing intifada – that it is the terrorists who regularly perpetrate war crimes, not the Israel Defense Forces. Ninety-nine percent of the time IDF soldiers tip-toe through the tulips instead of responding with legitimate full force to Arab aggression.
2. The ultimate responsibility for loss of life in this situation lies with the Palestinian attackers, and the difficult circumstances of this case cannot be separated from the context of ongoing Palestinian war against Israel.
3. Azaria erred in reading the situation and in arrogating to himself the decision to finish off the downed terrorist. But that’s all the court determined; that he operated without sufficient cause or authority. Such mistakes are made in situations of armed conflict. It’s unfortunate and unprofessional, not criminal, conduct. In other words, Azaria isn’t a hero, but he didn’t commit a war crime.
4. Israelis who are sympathetic to the plight of the panicked and perhaps hotheaded soldier that day in Hebron, are not fascists. They are patriots who send their sons to risk their lives in perilous military settings.
They are parents who know their young sons might make mistakes; people who know that not all soldiers can be expected to be Prof. Asa Kasher and make superfine, split-second distinctions about proportionality and purity of arms in every hot decision-making situation.
They are people who feel that when soldiers overreact or under-perform, due consideration should be accorded the soldier before rushing to lock him up. Especially if the “victim” of an error in judgment is a terrorist who minutes earlier tried to kill soldiers on the scene.
So now it is time to express regret for the wrinkle in operational conduct, and then act with sympathy toward the entangled soldier. Azaria should be slapped with an unexceptional punishment, then pardoned.
If Shin Bet (Israel Security Agency) leaders and agents can be pardoned for killing Palestinian terrorists well out of the scene of combat and for framing others for the deed (in the Bus 300 episode), then hapless Elor Azaria can be pardoned for his misstep too.
Then we all should move on with our heads held high.
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