Trial of Elor Azaria.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
As the protests on the streets of Tel Aviv showed on Wednesday, the Military Court’s decision to convict IDF soldier Elor Azaria of manslaughter in the death of a Palestinian terrorist in Hebron last March is not accepted by everyone in the country. Nevertheless, it should be held up as an example of how even after decades of fighting terrorism, Israel still retains its principles, morals and values.
From the beginning, Azaria’s trial was charged and politicized. There was Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s phone call to Azaria’s father to show support for the family, and Avigdor Liberman, who before becoming defense minister in May, sat in on remand hearings.
Those on the Right viewed the trial as an attempt to tie the hands of Israeli soldiers in their nonstop battle against Palestinian terrorists. They warned that by charging Azaria, the IDF was undermining the soldiers’ ability to fight terror and keep Israelis safe.
Those on the Left viewed the trial as an opportunity for the military and the state to declare that it will not tolerate vigilantes within its ranks, and that soldiers will not be allowed to take the law into their own hands.
The court’s decision to convict Azaria sends a decisive message that the military operates according to strict regulations and rules of engagement, alongside a clear set of morals and values that will not be compromised.
Nevertheless, the conviction will continue to reverberate throughout Israeli society for some time, mainly because it touches upon two of the nation’s primary ethos: defending the country, and at the same time protecting its young soldiers.
Azaria’s supporters have argued that the soldier is no different than any other 18-year-old who is drafted into the military and placed in difficult situations by participating in operations in the West Bank, the Gaza Strip and along Israel’s borders. This, they say, is what happened to Azaria – the reality in Hebron is not black and white, and the court could not have known what danger the soldier felt he was facing when he shot a neutralized terrorist.
The court, however, felt that the evidence presented during the trial – that Azaria was not in danger, and unilaterally shot Abdel Fatah Sharif for revenge – was indisputable, and justifiably convicted the young soldier.
The involvement of politicians in the trial – some even showed up in the courtroom on Wednesday – is dangerous and needs to stop. These members of Knesset are playing with fire by undermining the rule of law and military procedure. These MKs are narrowly looking only at their potential political gain. They are widening the rift within Israeli society while ignoring their duty as elected officials and working to heal it.
Although the conviction is a triumph for Israel as a land of law, the trial for the army has always been a lose-lose situation. An acquittal would have undermined the position taken by IDF Chief of Staff Lt.-Gen. Gadi Eizenkot and former defense minister Moshe Ya’alon, who both unequivocally condemned Azaria and the shooting.
On the other hand, while a conviction upholds their position, it threatens to undermine the status the IDF enjoys within Israeli society.
Polls already show that most Israelis believe Azaria was innocent. What will soldiers do tomorrow when their commanders give them an order they disagree with? Will they risk their lives for a country they feel has betrayed one of their own? For these reasons, we are concerned. The IDF has always prided itself on being a “people’s army,” a military that represents all parts of Israel’s diverse society. It is a military designed to be inclusive, and serve as “everyone’s army.”
But after a controversial and divisive trial like this, that status now comes under assault. Will the IDF continue to serve as a “people’s army” and be accepted by the entire Israeli people, or will it now be viewed as sectarian, as representing only one part of society? That is the healing process the army, the Knesset and Israeli society need to embark on now that the trial is over.
A soldier committed a crime and is now being punished for it, but there is still a country to safeguard and protect.
There is still a military that will one day be called upon to go into battle and fight to defend the Israeli people.
The political circus needs to end. The IDF needs to remain united.
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