04 January '17..
The trial and today’s conviction of Israeli soldier Elor Azaria is being celebrated by some as an example of how Israel’s justice system has vindicated the honor of the nation. That’s true. Sergeant Azaria was convicted of killing a terrorist who had already been captured and disabled. A video of the shooting appears to prove Azaria is guilty of manslaughter and the court rejected the attempts of his defenders to claim that his actions were appropriate or an effort to save his comrades from a danger that not longer existed.
And yet it must be said that, contrary to the arguments of Israel’s critics, a wave of support inside Israel for the defendant among the general public and many politicians is not an indication that 50 years of “occupation” has destroyed the country’s moral compass. If, despite the evidence that compelled the court to convict Azaria, so many Israelis on both the right and the left view this as more than a simple case of manslaughter, it is not because they are immoral or indifferent to Arab suffering. Rather, it is because the context of this controversy is a brutal war in which Israel’s youth is placed in harm’s way by their country’s foes; not an ordinary criminal case.
The context of the shooting was a brutal stabbing attack on a group of Israeli soldiers by two Palestinians. The terrorists managed to wound one Israeli. One of the assailants was shot dead during the struggle while the other was wounded. The latter, Abed al-Fatah al-Sharif, was lying on the ground seemingly incapacitated when Azaria arrived on the scene six minutes later. While he claimed afterward that he shot al-Sharif because he thought he was still a threat, his comments on the scene seemed to indicate that his motive was revenge for the stabbing of a fellow soldier rather than an effort to avert an imminent danger.
General Gadi Eisenkot, the chief of staff of the Israel Defense Forces, was right to assert that the IDF’s rules of engagement allow soldiers to defend themselves against terrorists without engaging in actions that can amount to the murder of a subdued prisoner. He’s also correct to point out that the effort to depict Azaria as “everyone’s child,” whose mistakes should therefore excused, miss the fact that the although he was a 19-year-old conscript, the sergeant was a well-trained soldier. He should have been expected to obey orders and had no right to shoot anyone except when it was necessary.
Moreover, Israel’s pride in the “purity of arms” of its soldiers is not just a matter of moral preening. An army whose soldiers do not follow the rules for dealing with prisoners is one that is likely going to have all sorts of other disciplinary problems that will undermine its ability to defend the nation. Letting anyone, let alone a soldier, get away with what amounts to vigilante actions undermines the rule of law that is the foundation of any democratic society.
Still, as much as the evidence made a guilty verdict inevitable, is it really so strange that, in a nation where most 18-year-olds are drafted for army service and are then placed on the front lines against terrorists, many Israelis would sympathize with Azaria? In a conflict in which Palestinian leaders and official media not only preach hate for Jews but honor those who act on their urgings as heroes, is it any surprise that most Israelis have little sympathy for those, like al-Sharif, whose only goal was to kill any Jew he met? Nor can we be shocked that parents of other young soldiers identify with the mental anguish of a teenager who has just seen one of his friends bleeding after a terrorist attack. Israel is a country where their enemies mark its entire people for murder. If some see the death of one of those foes—even if it was the result of a blatantly illegal act—as less grievous than the possibility that a young man who was serving his country will have his life ruined for acting impulsively, that just shows they are human and justifiably angry about the violence that is directed at their children.
Nor is this a case of the occupation chickens coming home to roost. To treat the downed terrorist, as some on the left seem willing, as if he were the moral equivalent of an African-American youth unfairly targeted for violence by the police is to misunderstand the situation. The “stabbing intifada” was just the latest round of terrorism that Israelis have been forced to endure that has little to do with settlements. Palestinian-Arab terror attacks on Jews rooted in anti-Zionist and anti-Semitic intolerance for the Jewish presence in the country have been going on for more than a century.
While the verdict in the case was just, the high-handed condemnations of Azaria’s supporters by foreign critics are not. And if, despite the fact that his actions were unjustified, Azaria’s sentence ends up being on the light side or winds up being commuted or if he was pardoned — a move Prime Minister Netanyahu has said he would support — it won’t be a sign that Israel has been corrupted by occupation. It would be an indication that the court and the government understands the difficult circumstances of a case that cannot be separated from the context of the ongoing war on the Jewish state.
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