Analysis: Legal dramas of the IDF intrinsically linked to Israeli society

Trial of Elor Azaria reflects decades-long dilemmas faced by young Israeli soldiers in the West Bank.

Elor Azaria (photo credit: AVSHALOM SASSONI)
Elor Azaria
(photo credit: AVSHALOM SASSONI)
Legal proceedings against members of the IDF are dominating the headlines, with each case touching – in very different ways – raw national nerves.
Minute-by-minute media coverage of the trial of Kfir infantry soldier Sgt. Elor Azaria, accused of illegally shooting dead a downed Palestinian knife attacker in Hebron on March 24, topped the Israeli news agenda again on Sunday, with some members of the public complaining of exaggerated coverage.
Azaria claims he acted to neutralize a potential imminent threat, and that he was concerned that the attacker, who had stabbed soldiers before being shot and wounded, was still armed with a suicide bomb. His commanders say he blatantly violated the rules of engagement, and the resulting court martial trial has torn the country apart.
Beneath the surface, it has also raised some divisions between a number of rank and file combat soldiers, who expressed understanding for Azaria, and their commanders, who are unanimous in rejecting his actions.
Concerned by this division, the IDF has made a strong effort to reiterate to soldiers serving in the West Bank that the rules of engagement – sometimes called the purity of arms – are not suggestions, but rather enforceable laws.
Adherence to those laws is what separates the national military from the armed militias and barbaric, radical gangs that surround Israel, the IDF emphasizes to its rank and file soldiers.
IDF sources argue that the message undoubtedly has gotten through, and point out that Azaria’s actions were the rare exception that proves the rule. Their judgment appears to be correct.
However, the trial remains controversial in the broader society outside of the army. It touches on a decades-old dilemma faced by generations of soldiers serving in the West Bank since 1967: how to serve in a difficult, threatening environment where there are no clear borders, and where threats are often embedded in the Palestinian civilian population from which they can suddenly explode seemingly from out of nowhere.
Young soldiers are under orders to keep their cool, adhere to training and strictly keep to the rules of engagement. IDF senior commanders say this message not only ensures that the military remains ethical, it also prevents unnecessary bloodshed on both sides.
Restraint where possible, they say, avoids casualties among Palestinians who do not pose an imminent threat to soldiers, thereby bypassing a potential snowballing effect of violence.
Soldiers in the field hear the same message from the IDF chief of staff and their brigade, battalion and company commanders.
The fact that the Hebron shooting is, indeed, a rare incident, is proof that despite the fears and difficulties facing these young soldiers, the military brass has succeeded in inculcating its message. But that won’t end the controversy surrounding the trial any time soon.
Meanwhile, in a wholly separate legal case dominating the headlines, the IDF’s prosecution charged Brig.-Gen. Ofek Buchris, an esteemed officer with many operational successes to his name, with raping and sexually assaulting two of his female subordinates.
The indictment has sent shock waves throughout the military and beyond into Israeli society, which is deeply linked with military affairs.
Buchris was scheduled to become the commander of the strategically vital IDF Operations Division, but is now fighting a different kind of war: a battle to clear his name.
The IDF suspended him from service in March, as soon as the allegations became known, and made no effort to sweep the affair under the rug. It responded in a transparent, responsible manner to a case that is both severe and rare.
Unfortunately, what appears to be somewhat less rare are instances of sexual harassment of female soldiers by their superiors.
The problem is ongoing, although IDF sources have said that many new programs are under way to deal with it, and that all members of the IDF are now clear about their rights, and to whom to turn in case of sexual harassment.
Commanders have been told that any sexual offense will result in an appearance in military court, followed by dishonorable discharge and a disgraceful end to their career – before potential criminal proceedings.
Only by enforcing such strict measures can the scourge of harassment, which dehumanizes women wherever it occurs, be dealt with.