JPost Editorial: Stay out

Neither politicians nor generals should interfere with the legal process of weighing the evidence and testimonies.

Elor Azaria (photo credit: AVSHALOM SASSONI)
Elor Azaria
(photo credit: AVSHALOM SASSONI)
Controversy surrounding the case of Sgt. Elor Azaria, the soldier who shot a subdued Palestinian terrorist in the head, has been characterized by hasty statements and unqualified declarations.
The military establishment initially jumped to the conclusion that Azaria is guilty of a breach in IDF’s ethics and rules of engagement. In contrast, a host of right-wing politicians have rushed to defend the soldier, flagrantly interfering with the military judicial process.
The military court hearing Azaria’s case should be allowed to determine Azaria’s guilt or innocence without unnecessary and politically motivated intervention.
Immediately following the March shooting, a number of right-wing politicians – including Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu – publicly expressed support for Azaria. Netanyahu took the unprecedented step of contacting Azaria’s father and offering support. He said at the time that “IDF soldiers, our children, stand before murderous attacks by terrorists who come to kill them. They have to make decisions in real-time.”
Avigdor Liberman, before being appointed defense minister, showed up at the military court trying Azaria to offer his support.
The latest salvo was fired on Saturday night when Bayit Yehudi chairman and Education Minister Naftali Bennett declared that whatever the verdict of the military court, Azaria should be pardoned because it is important to back soldiers in their efforts to protect the country from terrorists. This at a time when the trial is still ongoing.
Alongside the politicians, the military establishment also moved swiftly to draw conclusions. On the day of the incident, IDF Chief of Staff Lt.-Gen. Gadi Eisenkot and then-defense minister Moshe Ya’alon publicly criticized Azaria’s conduct. Eisenkot said that the soldier’s behavior reflected neither the IDF’s nor Jewish values. On Holocaust Remembrance Day, the deputy chief of staff, Maj.-Gen. Yair Golan, suggested that Israel today in some ways resembles Germany in the 1930s. His criticism was directed – among others – to those who spoke out in favor of Azaria’s act.
Both the military establishment and right-wing politicians were wrong to jump to conclusions. These comments, especially by politicians, represent a blatant attempt to interfere with the judicial process.
Ya’alon, Eisenkot, Golan and others in the IDF are right to be concerned about the breakdown of ethical conduct within the ranks. Nothing can more demoralizing than the excessive use of force. 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 is a strong motivating factor for soldiers that builds morale.
At the same time, a soldier who endangers his own life to protect the citizens of Israel deserves the benefit of the doubt – at least until a military court is given the opportunity to hear all sides of the story. Soldiers need to know that their commanders have faith in them in order to feel confident when they decide to use force. A breakdown of trust can be crippling.
That is why it is imperative that the military court be allowed to hear all the evidence related to Azaria’s case and determine whether his conduct was in accordance with the IDF’s rules of engagement.
Neither politicians nor generals should interfere with the legal process of weighing the evidence and testimonies and reaching a conclusion regarding Azaria’s guilt or innocence. A call to pardon Azaria even before a verdict is handed down is a direct affront to the IDF’s judicial system.
Bennett, Netanyahu, Liberman and other rightwing politicians might see in Azaria’s situation an opportunity to garner support from their constituency.
But they should resist the temptation to appeal to populist instincts, lest they fail in their duty to uphold our legal institutions. Similarly, generals should give Azaria the benefit of the doubt as long as a court of law has not found him guilty. IDF soldiers have a right to this minimal amount of trust from their commanders – at least as long as the judicial process has not been exhausted.