Sgt. Elor Azaria.
(photo credit: YONAH JEREMY BOB)
Shortly before Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu replaced him with Avigdor Liberman, former defense minister Moshe Ya’alon spoke out against attempts by right-wing activists to intimidate IDF officers.
“Do not fear, do not hesitate, do not be deterred,” declared Ya’alon in an address in May to the IDF leadership at the Defense Ministry’s headquarters in Tel Aviv.
“Be courageous not only on the battlefield, but also in the briefing room. A good army is an army whose officers, junior and senior alike, feel safe in their ability to speak their minds at all times with the knowledge that they won’t be harmed,” he continued.
Ya’alon’s words ring true today more than ever, after an IDF commander has been attacked on social media – including death threats – for testifying in military court against IDF Sgt. Elor Azaria, the soldier on trial for manslaughter who shot and killed a prone and seriously wounded Palestinian terrorist.
After giving testimony that contradicted some of Azaria’s claims, Maj. Tom Na’aman was ridiculed on Facebook and other social media forums. He was called a “traitor” for “betraying” his soldier and was accused of lying in order to be promoted.
Ever since Azaria, 19, was filmed on March 24 shooting 21-year-old Abed al-Fattah Yusri al-Sharif in the head, minutes after Sharif and another assailant stabbed and moderately wounded a soldier in Tel Rumeida, an Israeli enclave in Hebron, the Israeli public has been split.
On one side of the controversy is the military establishment, embodied by Ya’alon and Chief of Staff Lt.-Gen.
Gadi Eisenkot, who have condemned Azaria’s conduct.
On the other side of the controversy are right-wing politicians, Azaria’s family, friends and many supporters, who are outraged by the idea that a patriotic soldier has been villainized. As one family member put it, “Some of us are confused about who is the soldier and who is the terrorist.”
We, however, believe that the attack on Na’aman has crossed a redline that has been blurred in large part due to the conduct of our political leaders. Instead of unequivocally defending the IDF’s rules of engagement and its ethical values as set down in its code of ethics, too many political leaders have been catering to cheap populism. In contrast, Ya’alon has been a bulwark against a worrying trend.
As we have argued in the past, soldiers must adhere to the highest moral standards when using lethal force, particularly those serving on the West Bank among a large civilian population. They must shoot to kill only in cases where they have full justification for doing so.
Nothing can more demoralizing than the excessive use of force. We all have a moral conscience and none of us wants to kill unnecessarily or serve in an army that does.
Lax enforcement of rules of engagement leads to a breakdown of discipline and ultimately to demoralization and the loss of sense of purpose. Knowledge that the IDF strives to be the most moral army in the world builds morale and is a strong motivator for soldiers from diverse backgrounds.
Strict rules of engagement also foster discipline. A trigger- happy soldier is dangerous, not just to the enemy but to his fellow soldiers. This danger was clearly on display in the B’tselem video. Azaria opened fire on the incapacitated Palestinian lying on the ground without taking proper precautions to prevent the injury of the many people in close proximity. Had the Palestinian been carrying explosives on his body, as the soldier claimed, opening fire could have activated the bomb. Adhering to strict rules regarding when to open fire and when not to, saves lives.
Finally, and if an argument is even needed, maintaining high moral standards in the IDF helps Israel in the battle for world opinion. When IDF soldiers are caught on camera using lethal force without justification – for instance, when a terrorist has already been immobilized for 11 minutes – this reflects negatively on Israel as it battles to defend itself.
In contrast, when IDF soldiers behave with discipline and sensitivity and use force with proper discretion this sends out a positive message.
Since he began his IDF service a decade ago, Na’aman has proved repeatedly that, far from a “traitor,” he is a hero and a patriot who has risked his life to protect our country and the democratic values it represents. His testimony in court was an extension of his service on the battlefield.
Ya’alon was right to encourage IDF officers not be intimidated by populist forces. Our politicians should heed his advice