The Elor Azaria case has been making waves in the State of Israel for 11 months now. It is a shining example of everything that’s wrong with how things work here.
On March 24, 2016, a ordinary terrorist attack took place in Hebron, in which two Palestinians stabbed IDF soldiers, injuring one of them. Another soldier nearby immediately opened fire on the attackers, hitting one of them, who then fell and was unable to move, but not dead. The area began filling up with more security personnel, who stood a short distance from the subdued attacker. They made sure that the attacker posed no threat while they waited for the medical evacuation team.
But then things begin to get complicated, and one of the soldiers on the scene, Elor Azaria, decided that the terrorist deserved to die, and so he approached him, cocked his weapon and without giving any warning and for no apparent reason, shot him at close range.
At first glance, it appears that the soldier just made a mistake, that he violated the rules of military engagement, and that he acted in poor judgment. In most similar situations, the IDF would have immediately carried out an internal investigation. The Military Police would have taken charge and the case would have swiftly been tried in a military court. In such situations, there isn’t usually any social uproar or political fallout.
In the case of Elor Azaria, however, public officials made a long series of mistakes. Even before all the facts had been released, and well before the military had a chance to announce its plan of action, members of Knesset – including Prime Minister Netanyahu – began making public statements.
Then-defense minister Moshe Ya’alon immediately issued a strong condemnation of the soldier, saying that he’d committed a grave transgression. Ya’alon said that the IDF was becoming brutalized, and that he wouldn’t stand for this. Netanyahu also strongly condemned Azaria’s actions, and only later tried to soften his statement by stating that the IDF should be allowed to carry out its investigation.
Even IDF Chief of Staff Lt.-Gen. Gadi Eisenkot ran to speak with the press well before the facts were clear.
Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman (who was not a minister at the time) was even seen sitting in the military courtroom in Kastina, apparently showing his support of Azaria. The Azaria case instantly became a battleground for the war between the Left and the Right, as if the soldier had been the representative of a political party.
The amateurish and irresponsible conduct of all of the above-mentioned politicians signaled to Israelis in every sector to come forward and publicly express their opinion on this specific case, on the IDF in general, and about anyone who didn’t agree with them.
Of course, it didn’t help that the court took so long to reach a decision. Some people on the Right even suggested that Azaria be awarded a medal of honor, whereas others on the Left claimed that the shooting was in fact premeditated murder. The suspicion that the attacker had been wearing a suicide belt with explosives was quickly proven fallacious, but not before many people altered their opinion following this latest “discovery.”
The most disturbing aspect is that not one leader tried to stop the incitement and hatred, or to mend the schism. Not one politician said publicly that the IDF should be left out of the political debate. No one tried to unify the country and calm the waters. All of a sudden it felt like La Familia, the notorious Beitar Jerusalem supporters’ group, had taken over the country. The talkbacks that were posted on social media caused tremendous damage that nobody has bothered to repair.
The Azaria case should have been dealt with in an internal IDF investigation, and not a worldwide political event. The real story here is not the terrorist attack or even the unfortunate actions taken by the soldier, but the disappointing comportment of Israeli politicians and Israeli society as a whole.
Perhaps the brutalization Ya’alon spoke about does not just refer to the actions of IDF soldiers, but to our entire society, including our elected officials and key opinion leaders. It’s a shame we had to show the world this ugly side of our society before we even knew what had actually taken place.
This event is another touchstone for Israeli society. Israeli political and communal leaders across the board failed to provide the necessary leadership. Politicians, community leaders, top military commanders and security chiefs, media pundits on the Right and Left, judicial and law enforcement officials alike all failed to pull their weight.
This failure is more proof that Israeli society has become increasingly polarized in recent years. Sharp divisions have formed between social sectors, and community leaders busy themselves with cheap populism instead of acting with considered judgment. Our society has become violent – both physically and verbally.
Israel has turned into a pressure cooker that could erupt at any moment. Many people are just waiting for an excuse to vent their anger on fellow citizens with whom they disagree.
In a civilized society with level-headed officials, this would have played out quite differently.
The military would have issued a statement that it is examining the facts and will carry out a thorough investigation, following which it will publish its conclusions and decide the fate of the soldier. Neither the prime minister nor any other minister would have dared voice his opinion. La Familia, rapper Hatzel (“The Shadow”), and other publicity seekers would not have succeeded in leading public opinion.
The investigation and trial of Elor Azaria should have been conducted within the IDF in a professional and dignified way, instead of in sensational newspaper headlines and inappropriate posts on social media. But life is brutal in the jungle, and so I guess this is all we can expect in our society.The writer is a former brigadier-general who served as a division head in the Shin Bet (Israel Security Agency).
Translated by Hannah Hochner.