On Tuesday, a military court pronounced sentence on Sgt. Elor Azaria, called in Israel’s media “the soldier who shot in Hevron.”
Azaria was convicted of manslaughter after he put a bullet into the head of an Arab terrorist who had been wounded after he stabbed and injured an IDF soldier in March of last year. The incident was filmed by a Palestinian working for the left-wing NGO B’tselem. The video was shown on Israeli television and a massive media/political circus ensued. Even before the IDF investigation was finished, the army Chief of Staff and the Defense Minister made public statements accusing Azaria of misconduct in the harshest terms.
The rules of engagement forbid harming a terrorist who has been “neutralized,” and unless it could be shown that Azaria could have reasonably believed that the terrorist sprawled on the ground was still a threat, shooting him would be a serious violation of protocol. Depending on his intention, it could also be manslaughter or even murder.
During the trial, Azaria’s defense team tried to establish that the shooting was justified. He testified that he feared that the terrorist might be wearing an explosive belt, or that he might reach for a knife nearby. His lawyers even called a witness to argue that it was not Azaria’s bullet that killed the terrorist.
The defense’s arguments were unconvincing, and Azaria’s testimony was at times contradictory. There was testimony from another soldier in his unit that after the shooting Azaria said “He tried to stab a friend of mine and he deserves to die.” The trial continued for several months and numerous witnesses and experts were heard. It was accompanied by heavy media attention and public demonstrations for and against the accused.
The court – three military judges – rejected all of the defense contentions in a very unsympathetic decision that took more than an hour to read, and rendered a verdict of manslaughter. The judges then took up the question of punishment. Azaria could have received as many as 20 years imprisonment, but the prosecution asked for a sentence of three to five years. Tuesday, he was sentenced to 18 months in military prison, 12 months probation, and reduction in rank to private. The contrast between the court’s harsh decision and the very lenient sentence was striking.
Reactions to the sentence illuminated the chasms that exist in Israeli society. Azaria’s family and supporters joined arms and sang “Hatikva” in the courtroom after the sentence was pronounced, and called for him to be pardoned. His father hugged him and said “Elor, you are a hero!” His lawyers promised to appeal the verdict. There were demonstrations in the street outside in his favor, as there were during the trial itself.
But some thought that the verdict was far too lenient. Meretz MK Tamar Zandberg wrote on her Facebook page that “They sentenced [Azaria] to just a year and a half in prison. Azaria needed to be punished, and seriously.” Most public officials have been very uncomfortable with everything having to do with the incident and want to put it behind them.
Not so fast.
What happened was symptomatic of the difficulty a liberal democracy has in dealing with opponents that wage asymmetric warfare against it. It also illustrates the role of the cognitive/psychological war that is raging alongside the terrorism and violence that gets most of the attention.
The incident happened during a time that stabbings and car-rammings against Jews – including women and girls, small children, elderly people, soldiers, policemen and civilians – were at a peak. Almost every day there was another report of a vicious attack, and many of the reports were tragic. Encouraged by the official Palestinian Authority TV and radio, and by social media, PA residents and even some Arab citizens of Israel went on a murder spree. Even Israelis that remember the bombings of the Second Intifada were shocked by the cold, implacable hatred. What kind of creature could go up to a pregnant woman on the street and plunge a knife into her neck?
Israelis saw their soldiers (“everybody’s children”) forced to make life-and-death decisions in difficult circumstances. They saw that Jews are expected to follow the rules, but that for Arabs there are no rules; that Jews are expected to behave according to European standards of civilization, while Arabs are free to compete with each other to be the most barbarous killers.
Many people believe that no terrorist should be allowed to survive his act, but the rules say that once a terrorist is no longer a danger, he should be arrested, not killed. The rules say that a terrorist wounded while trying (or succeeding) to kill Jews should receive medical care. At one point, a directive was even issued that care should be prioritized only by the severity of wounds, and not depend on who is the attacker and who the victim!
Israelis noted how the families of terrorists in Israeli jails are paid salaries by the Palestinian Authority (with money it gets from the US and Europe). The longer the sentence, the higher the wages, so the worst get the most. Those who are killed in the act are glorified as martyrs in the official media, and the ones that survive are often released in “prisoner exchanges” like the 2011 deal in which 1027 terrorists, including numerous multiple murderers, were exchanged for one Israeli soldier, Gilad Shalit.
And – very importantly – they knew that Israel does not apply the death penalty for terrorist murder, so killers would ultimately be able to go on with their lives after serving their sentences (or after being traded for kidnap victims or body parts).
Elor Azaria was asked to do his job in these circumstances. He was 19 at the time. After a terrorist tried to kill his friend, he did what any normal person would be tempted to do. He broke the rules, violated protocol, and gave the terrorist what, in a moral if not legal sense, he deserved.
What should have happened then was an administrative hearing in which he would have been punished for breaking the rules, not a media and political circus and not a conviction for manslaughter.
But it was not an accident that it played out the way it did. Everything that the IDF does is scrutinized by organizations that claim to work to protect human rights, but whose real purpose is to delegitimize Israel.
Much like the way the communities around Gaza are undermined by Hamas tunnels, Israeli society and media are subverted by anti-state non-governmental organizations, of which B’tselem is a prime example. B’tselem received almost US$ 6 million between 2012 and 2016 from foreign governmental bodies (and more from other anti-Israel sources) for legal, diplomatic, political and propaganda warfare – there is no other way to describe it – against the state of Israel, the IDF and its soldiers. This money paid the operative that recorded the video that was used to blow this incident up into a national affair, and bought him his camera.
The Azaria prosecution was a propaganda blow against the IDF, which Israel’s enemies want to portray as arbitrarily murdering innocent Arabs. It was damaging to the morale of the soldiers who risk their lives to protect us, and who believe that Azaria’s officers and almost the entire military hierarchy abandoned him (they did). And if it results in more terrorists surviving their encounters with the IDF, then in my opinion that will be unfortunate.
One lesson from the affair is that Israel should apply the death penalty to terrorist murderers. Perhaps some of the frustration felt by our soldiers and police would be alleviated if they knew that an arrested murderer was likely to be executed rather than sent to a relatively (by world standards) comfortable prison where he will draw a salary and await the next prisoner exchange or political deal.
Another lesson is that the massive “human rights” industry in Israel, which is paid for by some of our worst enemies, needs to have its foreign funding cut off. No other country in the world would permit its enemies to pay for a massive subversive enterprise inside its own borders.
I would like to see Azaria pardoned. He’s been punished adequately since the incident. I would like to see our soldiers and police continue to act aggressively to stop terrorists, and know that their superiors will go to bat for them. And let’s think seriously about the death penalty for terrorist murder.