The IDF court-martial convicting IDF Sergeant Elor Azaria guilty of manslaughter for shooting dead a captured Palestinian terrorist has sent shock waves throughout Israel. This time the potential target is none other than IDF Chief of Staff Gadi Eizenkot. Overnight Israel's top soldier turned, in the eyes of some Right wingers, from an admired commander to a subject of controversy. And why is that? Simply because he reprimanded Azaria for shooting to death a wounded Palestinian prisoner in Hebron last March. After the verdict in the drawn-out trial, Right wing rabble-rousers clashed with Israeli police outside the Defense Ministry in Tel Aviv, chanting in Hebrew:
Their warning raised the specter of Yitzhak Rabin's assassination. Could such a danger now threaten Gen. Eizenkot? Were they just hooligans sounding off or did they portend something far more sinister?
Amir Peretz, a former defense minister and currently a Zionist Union Knesset Member, was shocked, as were many other Israelis. Interviewed on Israel Radio, Peretz warned that the public storm, actually fueled Right wingers starting with the PM, might incite an IDF soldier to even shoot Gen. Eizenkot during a military ceremony. With tempers running so high, could anyone guarantee this wouldn't happen? Peretz railed at Prime Minister Netanyahu for not immediately condemning the Right wingers. On the contrary, a few hours after the guilty verdict, Bibi had even written on his Facebook that Azaria should eventually be pardoned for killing the terrorist who had just stabbed another IDF soldier, even if the Palestinian was lying wounded in a Hebron Street. Bibi's constant rival, Cabinet Minister Nafatali Bennett of the Jewish Home party, had done one better by publicly declaring that Azaria should be pardoned immediately. The fact is that both Bibi and Bennett actually signaled the country that the three judges had erred in convicting Azaria. Moreover, by immediately calling for the pardon, Bibi and the other Right wingers also took a pot shot at the Chief of Staff who was critical of Azaria's action.
The upshot is the three military judges who heard the weeks of detailed evidence have also received threats and have been assigned bodyguards!
Lawyers for the convicted soldier will now appeal. Then the case will return to the original court-martial for sentencing, and only then is it possible to lodge a plea for a pardon. Therefore, all the politicians' appeals for a pardon at this stage is simply to gain popularity in the Right wing camp. Clearly the incident and the subsequent trial has been turned into a political football between the Right and the Left. (However one prominent Zionist Camp Knesset Member Shelli Yachimovitch also said Azaria should be eventually pardoned, stating that he was the victim of Netanyahu's failure to reach a solution with the Palestinians, and the result was that IDF soldiers were sent to such places as Hebron on the West Bank).
The facts of the case...
So why did the court martial find that Sergeant Azaria, a combat medic, was guilty of manslaughter for shooting a terrorist who was sprawled in the street eleven minutes after he and another Palestinian had stabbed and seriously wounded an IDF soldier? Azaria had arrived near the scene and treated the wounded soldier, who turned out to be his friend. He then walked to the nearby site of the attack where one terrorist was pronounced dead and the second was still alive after being shot. It transpired that IDF officers had checked out the Palestinians and had considered them no longer a threat; nor did a number of settlers and Palestinians who had gathered to see what had happened. That is when, video coverage provided by the Left wing B'Tzelem protest organization, later filmed and recorded someone shout 'He's moving!' This referred to the wounded Palestinian. Azaria was viewed as raising his rifle, taking aim and fatally shooting the wounded terrorist once.
Several IDF officers rushed in shouting at Azaria for opening fire. They later told the court-martial there was no reason for Azaria to shoot the wounded terrorist. (On a personal note, after viewing the video it seemed to me that there was no IDF officer who took charge by standing in the street next to the two Palestinians while they waited for the ambulance. This indicated the officers in charge did think there was no longer any threat from the two terrorists. But on the other hand, should not at least one of them have taken charge and stood near near the two Palestinians?) On this aspect, a retired IDF General, Dan Biton, who testified on behalf of Azaria, has said the site was not 'properly commanded' by the officers after the shooting incident. However General Biton had no complaint with the verdict of manslaughter. But another IDF General, Uzi Dayan, cousin of the late Moshe Dayan, testified at the court-martial that any armed terrorist who tries to attack Israelis should be killed on the spot.
Throughout his trial, Azaria repeatedly said he believed the terrorist was still alive and moving. He feared the Palestinian might be about to pose a danger, such as detonating a hidden explosives vest. The judges believed the officers and the video they observed. In addition, another soldier at the site testified that immediately after Azaria had shot the wounded Palestinian he heard him say: 'The terrorist stabbed my friend, he deserved to die!'
Let's go back to Chief of Staff Eizenkot, who is himself a veteran of the Golani infantry Brigade. Obviously he knows a thing or two about close quarter combat. Why did he immediately chastise Azaria publicly before the court-martial even began? It was important for the Chief of Staff to send a stern message to all his troops that he would not tolerate anyone taking the law into his own hands and shooting captured Palestinian terrorists. In fact, one day before the verdict, Eizenkot took issue with a major public campaign to exonerate the accused. Not only Right wingers but many other Israelis have contended that Azaria, aged nineteen, had volunteered to be a combat medic who was risking his life day in and day out for the rest of us. Even if maybe he panicked or whatever, Azaria served in a dangerous combat role for which he had even been decorated. They stressed his young age and argued that he should not have been put on trial in the first place:
'Azaria is a hero protecting all the rest of us from terrorists, he's just a kid of eighteen or so, he's like our very own child!'
Gen. Eizenkot rejected this notion just one day before the court-martial handed down its verdict. This sparked charges that he was trying to influence the verdict. The Chief of Staff left no doubt that he expects a high moral standard from his troops, who elsewhere in the world, would be freshmen or sophomores in college:
"An eighteen year old IDF soldier is not "everyone's child". He/she is a trained soldier who is expected to carry out his/her orders even at the risk of their lives. The confusion in Israel's public discourse about an eighteen year old man or woman recruit being "everyone's child" interferes with what has to be expected of them. And no one loves and respects our soldiers more than I do."
The Chief of Staff was simply restating the long-standing ethos of the Israel Defense Forces that has made it probably the most moral army in the world. (Consider the record of other armies of democratic states such as the US in Vietnam and Iraq, France in Algeria, Britain in Kenya and the rest of its former empire, not to mention Russia in Syria today.)
Gen. Eizenkot made clear that Israeli soldiers do not execute prisoners, even if they are terrorists who have just tried to murder Israelis. All Israelis should salute him. Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu should have been the first to do so. But Bibi did not. He was too busy vying with his Right Right rival Education Minister Naftali Bennett over who could call first for Azaria's pardon in order to boost popularity with the Right wing. Bibi has even failed to denounce the revolting Rabin-Eizenkot chant.
Get this: Deputy Foreign Minister Tzippi Hotobelli even stated the IDF had put on a 'show trial' for the foreign press at the expense of Sergeant Azaria and his family! Granted, 70% of Israeli public opinion backs Azaria, but there is apparently no limit to what some Israeli politicians will say. Among the most glaring was Minister of Culture Miri Regev. And why does she deserve this dubious distinction? Brig. (res.) Regev actually served as the IDF spokesperson at the end of her illustrious military career. It was her task to cope with the slings and arrows aimed at the IDF, including its Chief of Staff. But now in her new political career, Regev has also joined the chorus demanding a pardon for Azaria. The former Brig. Regev, like the rest of the crowd, has undermined Gen. Eizenkot while also bashing the military judges for their guilty verdict.
There are some who acted responsibly. For example current Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman who didn't like the guilty verdict that much but said that it had to be respected. But prior to taking office, Lieberman was a super hawk lambasting the IDF for the court-martial. Now in his new job, he declared the legal process should be allowed to run its course.
Let IsraCast be clear: We believe a terrorist, man or woman, armed with a machine gun, revolver, hidden explosives vest, hand grenade, axe, hatchet or whatever , who poses a clear and present danger must be shot, and if necessary, killed. But, as Gen. Eizenkot has made clear, a disabled terrorist who no longer poses a threat must not be executed. In the case of Sergeant Azaria there are extenuating circumstances that will be raised later on, if and when, the legal hearing begins on his punishment. A plea bargain is still possible.
And this footnote: the Right wing politicians, who have been speaking out of both sides of their mouth in this affair, recall the situation immediately before the assassination of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin after a peace rally on November 4,1995. At that time, Netanyahu and other Right wingers also ignored the despicable caricature of Rabin in a Nazi SS uniform. They did not speak out loud and clear then - the time has come for them to do so now!
PS: Vital statistics in the current wave of Palestinian terror as of Jan. 2, 2017:
- 40 Israelis plus two Americans murdered - 635 wounded
- 169 stabbings
- 124 shootings
- 50 vehicular attacks
- 1 car bomb