Ten months after the high-profile trial of IDF Sgt. Elor Azaria began, a military court is set to decide not only his fate, but also that of the army’s top officer, Lt.-Gen. Gadi Eisenkot, who from the start condemned the soldier’s actions.
The trial has sparked unprecedented national debate and pitted the IDF’s chief of staff and then-defense minister Moshe Ya’alon against politicians (including the prime minister), the Azaria family and supporters who say the soldier should not be facing manslaughter charges, but is actually a hero who should be celebrated for killing a terrorist who had stabbed Israeli soldiers.
The defense has argued that Azaria’s trial has been “infected” from even before it started, with comments condemning Azaria by Ya’alon and Eisenkot influencing commanders, military police and the judiciary.
Azaria’s supporters refer to how shortly after the shooting in Hebron in March, the IDF spokesperson stated that his actions “contradict the IDF’s ethical code and what is expected from the IDF’s soldiers and commanders.”
The army feared that if Azaria was let off the hook, it would encourage other soldiers to copy his actions, with Eisenkot warning that while a high percentage of the public trusts the army, “the potential for harm in the public’s trust in the IDF is a serious problem that can make it difficult for the people’s army to fill its role.”
During the trial, Danny Biton, a former IDF general, testified for the defense and accused the prosecution of “castrating the army” by second-guessing Azaria’s actions. According to the defense, a conviction of Azaria could set a dangerous precedent, with serious ramifications for other IDF soldiers who find themselves in similar circumstances in the future.
“It could have a profound impact on the IDF being able to give operational orders,” the defense wrote in its summary.
While the shot fired by Azaria in Hebron, and his subsequent trial, have been felt in Israel and the world, he is not the first IDF soldier to be charged with manslaughter.
But if found guilty, he would be the first IDF soldier to be convicted of manslaughter in 12 years, since Taysir Heib was sentenced in 2005 to eight years in prison for the manslaughter death of British citizen Tom Hurndall in Rafah, in the southern Gaza Strip.
If he is convicted, Azaria faces up to 20 years in prison, and the Military Advocate General’s Office is said to be considering asking the court to send him to military prison immediately after the verdict, although the court will likely take into account that he spent 10 months in open detention.
The case led to a major rift between Ya’alon and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who in April said that “the IDF backs its soldiers.” The confrontation led to the defense minister being replaced by Yisrael Beytenu head Avigdor Liberman, who has publicly supported Azaria.
According to the indictment, Azaria fired on the supine Palestinian terrorist “against the rules of engagement, with no military necessity, at a moment when the terrorist Sharif was lying on the ground, was not engaging further attacks and did not constitute an immediate danger to the defendant, to the civilians or to the soldiers in the area.”
No matter the outcome of the trial, the verdict will reverberate throughout the military.
While a conviction will be seen as a reinforcement of Eisenkot’s tough stance and the current IDF rules of engagement, it will also lead to a public uproar. According to several polls, there is widespread public support for Azaria, indicating a significant gap between the views of the chief of staff, top IDF brass and Israeli public.
If he is exonerated, it will be seen as a public dismissal of Eisenkot’s position, who on Tuesday criticized those who have called for leniency in Azaria’s sentencing, stressing that “there are legal orders, illegal orders and blatantly illegal orders,” and will potentially lead to calls for him to revise the current IDF rules of engagement.
But no matter how the court decides, a public uproar can be expected, and with the growing influence of social media, the army can longer ignore public outcry, no matter what it might be.
From the beginning, Azaria’s case has been about much more than just the shooting of a Palestinian terrorist in Hebron. It is about the future of the IDF, which defines itself as “the most moral army in the world” as well as “the people’s army.” It is about what kind of military the State of Israel wants to have and the conduct by which its soldiers should abide.