Sgt. Elor Azaria.
(photo credit: YONAH JEREMY BOB)
Major trials are in some ways like political races – whoever frames the narrative at the outset has the upper hand. At the opening Monday of Hebron shooter Sgt. Elor Azaria’s trial, that seemed to be the case. While attorneys for both sides argued procedure, at times, it seemed like they were fighting over Israel’s national identity.
Defense lawyers Eyal Baserglick and Ilan Katz seemed to relish in tearing into the IDF prosecution for failing to provide various documents or for failing to explain what the documents were – a standard maneuver by defense lawyers to throw off the prosecution at the start of a trial.
IDF prosecutor Lt.-Col. (res.) Nadav Weissman, brought in from his regular job as one of Israel’s top trial lawyers for the trial, seemed to equally relish explaining why the documents or information were already provided or don’t need to.
Some of the journalists who came expecting drama started to drift off to sleep or text friends. But underneath all of the procedural arguments, the sides were actually fighting over the heart of the case and to some extent over the country’s character.
The real documents the defense cares about getting contain the details of prior cases where IDF soldiers were investigated for killing Palestinians, but not indicted.
They want to frame the entire case for the judges as arbitrary enforcement against Azaria and to prove their point by spending most of the case throwing examples, documents and witnesses at the judges of all the other soldiers who were not prosecuted.
In contrast, the prosecution wants to frame the case as a black-and-white straightforward crime which lacks precedent or parallel. The prosecution refuses to turn over documents from other cases – preferring to declare those cases irrelevant in an attempt to keep them out of court.
In the broadest sense, this fight is also over the country’s identity.
When a Palestinian terrorist attacks Israelis and gets killed, does the act of attacking and past experience of some terrorists hiding second knives or booby traps effectively absolved them from being killed? Or will the IDF prosecute its own soldiers for violating or misunderstanding the rules of engagement and refuse to give them a pass on the basis of the unique tensions and dangers associated with the war on terror? Is the country telling soldiers to be faster or slower on the trigger during this period of conflict? Those questions will likely come up throughout the trial, turning the Azaria case into more than an argument about documents and past cases. This could be a fight over the nation’s identity.