First and foremost it is scandalous that after two Palestinian terrorists attacked an IDF post at Tel-Rumeida, Hebron on March 24, 2016 and were neutralized by the soldiers – one being killed on the spot and the second grievously wounded – events appear to have been directed by local Jewish civilians, whose opinions on how Palestinians ought to be treated differ in many respects from official IDF policy, and not by the military personnel present.
Had the army been in full command on the location, it is likely that sergeant Elor Azaria, an army medic with Kahanist leanings, would have been prevented from firing another, fatal shot at the wounded Palestinian, 11 minutes after the original event had ended and an army officer had verified that the wounded Palestinian was not wearing an explosive belt, but was nevertheless ignored by the local paramedics.
We also do not know how the episode would have been treated by the IDF if it hadn’t been for the fact that a Palestinian photographer, working on behalf of NGO B’Tselem, had recorded the events on video, after the original terrorist attack had ended.
What we do know is that after the video was put on the Internet, and before the official investigation had been completed, everyone started making irresponsible declarations – some of which proved to correspond with the facts as they were revealed, and others of which did not. The public discourse was certainly politically tainted.
Contrary to the defense establishment, which from the very beginning concluded that Azaria’s conduct had been highly irregular and contrary to the IDF’s rules of engagement, the popular reaction, openly supported by most right-wing politicians – including Education Minister Naftali Bennett and Avigdor Liberman when he was still in opposition – was one of absolute support for Azaria, who was declared “the son of us all.”
At first Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu also criticized Azaria, but then seemed to change his mind, and though he did not declare the sergeant innocent went to the trouble of calling up Azaria’s father to express sympathy and reassurances that Elor would get a fair trial.
I do not know whether at that early stage Netanyahu was aware of the fact that during Operation Protective Edge Elor Azaria – then a 16-year-old youth – had referred to him on Facebook as a “coccinelle” (homosexual), following the government’s decision to declare a cease-fire despite the absence of a clear Israeli military victory, adding that “Kahana was right,” to which his father had added, “The tzaddik (righteous) Kahane was right,” referring to Rabbi Meir Kahane, founder of the far-right Kach Party, considered a terrorist organization by Israel, Canada, the EU and US.
Netanyahu’s reaction had nothing to do with a levelheaded analysis of the events, or the identity of the sergeant and his family, but rather with the fact that Bennett and Liberman had come out in support of Azaria and the prime minister didn’t want to be left behind in sucking up to the right-wing electorate.
What one would expect of the prime minister in a situation where a basic tenet of the IDF’s moral code, not to speak of the state’s values and moral backbone are being challenged, is to act judiciously, and contend seriously with the problem at hand. In this respect Netanyahu failed dismally.
After the verdict in the Azaria trial was given on January 4, Netanyahu once again followed Bennett and the populist call that he be pardoned, even though the legal process hadn’t come to an end (his sentence has not yet been declared, and Azaria’s defense attorneys are expected to appeal the verdict), and there is no sign that Elor is willing to admit that irrespective of his political views, as a soldier he is bound by all IDF rules and regulations, which in this particular case he broke (the verdict totally rejected his attempts to prove otherwise).
Contrary to Netanyahu, Defense Minister Liberman, despite his admitted dislike for the tribunal’s verdict, stated immediately that “we are all obliged to respect the legal decision,” adding that before one calls for a pardon of Azaria, the legal process must be exhausted.
Liberman also stated that “the army must be left above any political debate,” and condemned the unbridled attacks on the chief of staff by extreme right-wingers, which included insinuated threats on his life. To the best of my knowledge Netanyahu said nothing about the threats against the chief of staff, or against the three judges on the tribunal, just as he failed in 1995, as leader of the opposition, to condemn the incitement against Yitzhak Rabin.
With regards to Azaria’s pardon, I agree with Labor MK Shelly Yachimovich that Elor’s shoulders are too narrow to bear the burden of the controversy on his own. However, demanding a pardon at this stage implies a rejection of the tribunal’s long and reasoned verdict, and the IDF’s moral code and rules of engagement. A pardon at some point in the future is not to be excluded, but it cannot be detached from a clear educational statement regarding democratic principles, including the rule of law, and morality, both in its Jewish and universal senses.
Unfortunately our education minister has taken the side of the inciters, for electoral reasons our prime minister is acting as Bennett’s copycat, leaving the role of responsible adult to the enigmatic Liberman, who for the time being is fulfilling it faithfully.
And what about Yesh Atid leader Yair Lapid? He is busy these days talking about Israel’s need for love.
His comment on the Azaria affair: “The most dangerous thing that can happen to us is that we shall be managed by people who love to hate.” Aha.