Conviction of IDF Soldier Divides Israeli Opinion

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Views from the Region

Elor Azaria, the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) soldier who shot dead an incapacitated Palestinian attacker, has been found guilty of manslaughter and sentenced to 18 months in prison. The verdict has divided public opinion, a schism reflected in the Israeli dailies. Few dispute the fact that Mr. Azaria shot and killed a wounded Palestinian; however, there are clear differences in opinion about whether there should be accountability for Azaria’s actions and, if so, who should bear the responsibility. 

Israel Hayom’s Boaz Bismuth argues in a recent op-ed that the jailing of the young IDF soldier was unnecessary and that the military leadership unfairly politicized the case: “The lenient sentence handed down by the military court in Tel Aviv Tuesday did not sign and seal the case of the ‘Hebron shooter.’ Only a pardon for IDF soldier Elor Azaria — if and when it is given — will bring about an end to this dramatic tragedy before us….By the way, the lenient sentence, which did not align with the harsh ruling, only increased the public embarrassment: Is the IDF Israel’s defense force or the defense force of public mindset? …Any citizen would tell you that the role of the military is first and foremost to win and only after that to preach….But, for whatever reason, there was a desire to burden the young soldier who made a mistake with all the ills brought upon us by the situation….it is possible that the next round of fighting in Gaza is on the horizon. We must hope that by then, the IDF will think about just one thing throughout the conflict — winning the war, and not winning in court.”

That grievance is shared also by Ariel University Professor Dr. Eyal Levin, whose views were aired liberally by Benny Toker in an op-ed written for Arutz Sheva: "There are a lot of things here which were not handled appropriately. The connection between an army trial and a regular trial is like the connection between an army band and music. When the Defense Minister decides what the outcome should be, and the Chief of Staff backs him up — the entire army is subject to the Chief of Staff’s decisions. There’s no way the trial will be fair. We could have had an internal trial, within Azariya’s battalion, and his company commander would have been the judge, and he would have been judged like everyone else for an operational mistake in an internal trial. Instead we had a fake trial which needed to agree with the highest army commanders.”

Convinced that the guilty Israeli soldier should not be ultimately held accountable for his actions, Yedioth Ahronoth’s Amnon Abramovic points his finger in the direction of “all the leaders of the Jewish settlement in Hebron throughout the years. The trial should not have focused on morality in battle, but on the morality of their presence there. Some 900 settlers and yeshiva students have placed themselves among 250,000 Palestinians. Most of them are not preaching good neighborly relations and peace, they are agitators calling for a transfer….When a soldier arrives in Hebron, the local leadership expropriates the IDF authority, throws out the organizational envelope and digs its hoofs into him. From this moment and as long as he serves in Hebron, extreme right-wing politician Baruch Marzel is his prime minister, Libman is his chief of staff and Ofer Ohana of Magen David Adom is his direct commander….In my opinion, the judges could have deceived the masses, outsmarted them even more and not sent Azaria to prison at all. Rather, they could have demoted him to the rank of private and thrown him out of the IDF with a mark of disgrace.”

But not all share that view. Sima Kadmon, also writing for the Yedioth Ahronoth, believes that the young soldier is getting off lightly considering the gravity of the crime committed: “Take the sentence and run, Elor Azaria. Embrace it with both hands and get as far away as possible from those trying to convince you to appeal it….Sit down by yourself, Elor Azaria, and reconsider. Believe me, you got off lightly. The sentence you received on Tuesday actually does you a favor. Considering the verdict, the court handed you a very lenient sentence. In the worst-case scenario, you’ll sit in prison for a few months. That’s a walk in the park compared to the act that was committed, to the bullet that was fired without any justification into the head of a dying terrorist…. Only recently, the Appeals Court ruled that the punishment for adult Palestinians who throw stones during a riot without causing injuries or damage is 18 months in prison. On Tuesday, the Military Court handed down an 18-month sentence against a soldier who was convicted of manslaughter, violating the supreme value of the sanctity of life.”

The Haaretz editorial takes aim at what it considers to be a very flawed and lenient sentence that in its view signals the fact that “the era of purity has ended…. the exceptionally lenient sentence handed down on Tuesday in the case of soldier Elor Azaria — 18 months in prison, plus a suspended sentence and a demotion in rank — represents a serious deviation from the norms expected of the legal system by the military court that heard the case….Tuesday’s sentence looks like it was tailored as a kind of political compromise, and thereby stains the fundamental norms that guide the military justice system….The sentence didn’t merely capitulate to the populism of the political right by including irrelevant considerations. It also, to a great extent, constituted a declaration that the era of purity of arms has ended in the IDF — the very purity of arms that leads politicians to boast of the IDF and call it “the most moral army in the world.”

Yoav Limor, writing for Israel Hayom, raises a number of important questions and highlights the disparity between the guilty verdict and the light sentence handed out to Mr. Azaria: “If until now people thought that the Azaria case would be taught in political science courses and in the army’s various officer training programs, there’s no doubt that it will also serve as material for law students, who will be asked to explain how the crime of manslaughter in the first degree ends with a sentence of only 18 months in prison (and why matters that were rejected out of hand in the conviction were brought up as mitigating circumstances in the sentence — legally, it might be possible, but it doesn’t make sense to the public.)…The IDF, obviously, will learn some lessons from it, but the basic situation in Judea and Samaria, where civilians and the military mix with the constant threat of terrorism in the background, is already ripe for the next incident of this kind. We can certainly expect nothing from the politicians, who proved during this affair that no cow is too sacred for slaughter.”

Sensing the divisive impact the court case and its effect on an already polarized Israeli society, the Jerusalem Post attempts to draw a line under it, suggesting that the guilty finding should restore Israeli’s faith in their army: “A nation that has been split over the trial has yet to accept that justice has been served, but it is time to move on….there are those who think of the young soldier as ‘our son,’ an IDF hero who should be praised for killing a terrorist attacker. On the contrary, presiding Judge Col. Maya Heller said the court found that Azaria’s actions had harmed the core values of Israeli society and violated the ‘purity of arms’ of the IDF’s ethical code….Cynical right-wing politicians — such as Avigdor Liberman, Oren Hazan, Miri Regev, Naftali Bennett and others — sought to capitalize on Azaria’s misery by leading a populist chorus of people unwilling to accept the possibility that their favorite son might be a vengeful killer, if not a murderer….Azaria’s conviction sends a clear message to his comrades in arms and to the entire nation: The IDF is a moral military force that abides by its core value of the purity of its arms and will not tolerate cases when soldiers take the law into their own hands as happened in Hebron last March.”

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  • Middle East Policy

    Middle East Policy has been one of the world’s most cited publications on the region since its inception in 1982, and our Breaking Analysis series makes high-quality, diverse analysis available to a broader audience.

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