The Azaria affair: Anger for some Israeli reservists, pride for others

Reserve soldier: Even terrorists deserve a free trial, Azaria is no hero.

January 5, 2017 00:15
An Israeli border policeman aims his weapon at Palestinians during clashes in Hebron

An Israeli border policeman aims his weapon at Palestinians during clashes in Hebron. (photo credit: REUTERS)

It took nearly three hours, but in the end a verdict of guilty was handed down to Sgt. Elor Azaria on Wednesday, following a 10-month trial over the shooting death of an incapacitated Palestinian terrorist in Hebron last year.

The trial has sparked unprecedented national debate, and over the course of the trial some soldiers reportedly threatened to desert if Azaria would be convicted, a report the army said was baseless.

Following the verdict, The Jerusalem Post spoke to several reservists, including one who said he would no longer do his reserve service, and others who praised the court’s decision.

“As long as Azaria is behind bars, I will not do my reserve service,” one reservist in the infantry said.

“Israeli top brass has lost any sort of connection to the soldiers in the field. They have no idea what is going on.”

“I am appalled and astonished by [Chief of Staff Lt.-Gen. Gadi] Eisenkot,” he continued, saying that he has seen several posts on social media calling on him to resign. “After his comments yesterday, where he said that Azaria is not our son, he is not fit to be chief of staff.”

A day before the sentencing of Azaria, Eisenkot said that Azaria “is not everyone’s son” whom the nation should protect, but “a fighter, a soldier, and he must give his life to protect us.”

Following his comments, a spokesman for the family said that “it is true that he is not everyone’s child, but he is everyone’s soldier.”

Hundreds of supporters gathered outside the venue of the trial on Wednesday, including several in uniform, and according to a Channel 2 poll on Wednesday night, only 38% of Israelis agree with Eisenkot’s statement.

Warr. Ofc. (res.) Michael Dvorin, who served as a paramedic in a combat unit until he was released from the reserves, said the verdict has left him with serious doubts about the army.

“I would have serious doubts in my willingness to serve in dangerous places where I wouldn’t have the back of my commanders,” he said, adding that as a former combat paramedic, he sees himself “as someone who could have been in the same situation.”

“The IDF is the army of the people, and when we give our sons to our commanders, we demand and rely on them that, in the moment of truth, they won’t desert our sons,” Dvorin said, adding that “the case touched the most exposed nerve of Israeli society.

Now mothers can’t be sure that their son won’t find themselves in the same situation, where their commanders won’t give them the backup they need.

“It’s a terrible message, and it has breached an unwritten contract between the army and the people.”

Tomer, a major in the reserves and a former officer in the Kfir Brigade, said that “there is nothing heroic in shooting at a dying terrorist lying on the ground. It is not the way we were trained in the army. These kind of events never happened under my command during 18 years of compulsory and reserve service."

“However, we were also taught to stand up to our failures and take responsibility as commanding officers in the battlefield. Elor’s act was a mistake, not manslaughter."

According to Tomer, “the notion among Elor's brothers in arms and among the reserves is that the system deserted one of its own to cover up its own flaws. Unfortunately, it will have a strong and bad impact over the motivation and spirit of the men and women in service.”

“Israel is still a country under existential threat, still surrounded by enemies wishing the worse for our country and people. Israeli men and women in the army will not put down their arms or neglect their duties as it will only serve to strengthen those who stand against us.”

Tomer told the Post that the IDF will have to once again earn the trust of the soldiers and their families, something he said that “will take a lot of time and effort."

“Ben-Gurion once said that ‘every Hebrew mother will know she put her sons’ fate in the hands of well-deserved commanders.’ I sadly believe that, today, one specific mom and many other moms in Israel feel differently.”

According to St.-Sgt. Maj. (res.) Gabriel Avner, who served in the infantry, the military court ruled according to the army’s law. “In order to run an army, it’s extremely important to have rules of engagement that supersede any one person’s ideology, because when those things fall apart, the army falls apart.

Avner said he does not understand why some reservists have threatened to stop serving, because of Azaria’s conviction.

“The purpose of going to the reserves is to protect and defend the country and the people of Israel. In my unit, there are many religious settlers and also many people on the left side of the political spectrum.

We all have very strong political convictions, but at the end of the day, we are here to do a job, to protect the country.”

Staff Sergeant (Res.) Z., who has served in the reserves for 20 years, told the Post that while he had mixed feelings about the verdict, it would not affect his decision to continue to serve in the reserves to protect the State of Israel.

“Anyone who does reserves knows why they are there and knows what to do. If people have questions as to what is right or wrong, that is an issue that needs to be dealt with,” he said.

But according to him, the problem is that soldiers will now feel that they are being judged. “The IDF must make it clearer in regards what they want of soldiers. What is the expected outcome of a situation?” Referring to Eisenkot’s statements, he told the Post that he’s “always been against this concept because it makes the soldiers seem as poor, helpless victims, but in reality our soldiers are strong and should not be looked upon as a child. It’s the most unchildish thing to be given a weapon and take a life.”

Referring to Eisenkot’s statement, St.-Sgt. Maj. (res.) Guy Salman said that “if my son would do something like he did, I would be ashamed.

“While I understand that many people believe that terrorists deserve to die, a soldier cannot just pick up his weapon and shoot someone in their head. Even terrorists deserve a free trial. Azaria is no hero.”

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