The still unfolding story of Elor Azaria is only the latest saga reflecting the difficulties faced by Israel, and the struggle of officials and others to deal with contending values and aspirations.
Azaria was an IDF draftee who became the center of events that seem to have been beyond the capacity of him or his family to manage with any elegance or success.
He was found guilty of the unnecessary killing of a Palestinian who had been intent on killing Israelis, and was rendered inert and dying when Azaria administered a fatal shot to his head.
Involved in judicial proceedings and a media circus that have so far consumed the better part of a year, and are still pending the prospect of appeal is a court martial's verdict that Azaria killed without justification or reliable explanation.
The judge who chaired the court martial was clear in her verdict of guilt, but revealed considerable ambivalence in explaining the sentence which came a month later. She reviewed the serious nature of the charge and the verdict, but also the hitherto clean record of Azaria and the pressures imposed on soldiers stationed in areas subject to frequent attacks. Her reading of the court's reasoning went on for more than a half hour of back and forth between the pros and cons of a heavy or light punishment, and ended up with a sentence of 18 months, an additional suspended sentence of a year pending behavior, and reduction in rank from sergeant to private.
Immediately after the sentencing right wing politicians demanded a pardon by the President or the Commanding General. Family representatives said they would appeal both the verdict and the sentencing, and Azaria himself continued his practice of silence, with a smile plastered on his face, and relying on others to manage his fate.
One commentator viewed the light sentence as the effort of the court to save Azaria from himself, hoping perhaps that he'd accept the sentence as fair, and forego an appeal. (In Israel the prosecution as well as the defense can appeal. If the defense appeals, the prosecutor may file a counter appeal, and the final sentence may be greater or less than what the court had originally determined.)
The matter occupied virtually all of a day's media, with statements from military, political, and others returning to well known themes that the soldiers of the IDF are our children who must be protected from the politicians who haven't solved the nation's problems, and counter assertions that they are not children when assigned to duty, but have been through extensive training in the needs of national defense and the norms of the IDF that forbid unnecessary violence.
Azaria is far from the first, and is unlikely to be the last Israeli soldier or security operative accused of improper action toward individuals who acted against Israel, were perceived as a threat, acted suspiciously, were hapless Arabs in the wrong place at the wrong time, or became the targets of hyped up Israelis who acted improperly.
Among the prominent cases in a long history
- Several instances during the 1948 war, including an attack by a paramilitary unit on the village of Deir Yassin, which is variously described as a response to fire from the village or the unnecessary killing of civilians.
- The killing of civilians living in Kfar Kassem in 1956, when they seemingly violated a curfew imposed by the military government of the time. The residents are unlikely to have known about the curfew, but were mowed down by Border Police as they returned from their fields.
- Palestinian attackers who killed passengers on an Intercity Egged bus in 1984, who were killed after being captured by ranking members of the security service.
- Still the subject of an ongoing official inquiry is a Bedouin driver who killed a police officer and was killed by police. It's been described as a police response to what appeared to be a terrorist intent on mayhem, and an unfortunate circumstance that does not lend itself to a clear explanation and assignment of responsibility.
Against these and other instances where Israelis involved have been subject to little or no punishment, are the responses of Arab officials and family members who routinely assert that attackers have been innocent and framed, and deserve treatment as heroes and martyrs of Palestine. Family members of the man who died after an attack on Israeli soldiers, and whose shot from Azaria may only have speeded his inevitable death from previous wounds, have asserted that Arab boys who throw stones are typically sentenced to longer terms than was Azaria.
What we're left with are explanations pro and con with respect to the verdict and sentence of Azaria that summarize a difficult situation.
The statement by the Arab who is the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, objecting to the light sentence given Azaria, has provided material yet again for Israeli critics of the UN who see it more concerned to criticize how Israel deals with serious threats than with the more blatant violations of human rights elsewhere, and especially those just over our borders.
Also involved are attorneys and other advisers of the Azaria family who seem to be exploiting the situation for their own purposes. Court martial personnel noted that Azaria rejected opportunities to escape with little or no punishment by admitting his error and asking for understanding. However, the repeated posture from family spokespersons has been to insist on the justice of his actions, and demanding a continuation of judicial procedures to an appeal or a pardon from IDF or government personnel.
Supporting them is public opinion. Various polls have shown 56-67 percent of respondents saying that he should be pardoned, or that the sentence was excessive.
We can wonder if Israelis wrench themselves apart more or less than Americans with respect to such things as My Lai, or bombings of civilian gatherings in Afghanistan and Pakistan that were explained by faulty intelligence, implemented by unmanned aircraft flown by personnel half a world away who lacked the capacity for last minute verification of those to be killed.
There are also complexities in issues of security and morality that are worthy to ponder, far in time or substance from arguments surrounding Elor Azaria.
They include IDF's efforts not to send Druze soldiers against Druze fighters in Lebanon, and our own family's stories of close relatives posted against one another in German and American uniforms in World War I.
Onkel Albert was trained as a sniper and sent to the Germans' western front. One morning he had a Frenchman in his sights, but chose not to fire when he heard the enemy begin morning prayers with שמע ישראל.
Albert risked a death sentence by his split second decision, and has provided me with a story that goes over better with Israelis than with Americans (Jews and others).
Judging what soldiers or police do or do not do in the context of violence is not simple, especially for those who haven't been there.