Analysis from Israel

The massive support in Israel for soldier Elor Azaria, who was convicted of manslaughter on Wednesday for killing a wounded Palestinian terrorist, has confounded some of its friends and supplied ammunition for its enemies. So it’s important to understand why that support is so widespread. Jonathan Tobin correctly explained some of the reasons yesterday, including the fact that most Israelis have limited sympathy for terrorists. But to a large extent, this is also a self-inflicted wound by the two people at the top of the military chain of command, who forgot the most basic principle of justice: Not only must it be done, but it must be seen to be done. By their own actions, they managed to create an appearance of injustice in a case where I believe none actually occurred.

The shooting occurred at about 8:30 A.M. on March 24. Five hours later, B’Tselem released videotaped footage of it. By that evening–at a time when the Military Police investigation had barely begun, and long before the video could have been examined to ensure it hadn’t been doctored–both then-Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon and Israel Defense Forces Chief of Staff Gadi Eisenkot had already unequivocally condemned Azaria’s behavior. Ya’alon said it “completely contradicts” IDF values, while an IDF spokesman termed it a “grave breach” of IDF standards. Such condemnations continued in the coming days. On March 28, for instance, three weeks before the military prosecution decided to file charges, Ya’alon told the Knesset that Azaria was “a soldier who has transgressed, and not a hero.” In other words, both Ya’alon and the army had declared Azaria guilty even before he was charged.

In conversations with friends shortly after the incident, it was this that most infuriated them and aroused their sympathy for Azaria: They felt that the men in charge of the army, whose job was to ensure that any soldier suspected of wrongdoing receives a fair hearing, had instead rushed to judgment against him in order to appease a hostile world after B’Tselem made its video public. Moreover, they wondered whether Azaria could even receive a fair trial when the two men who must sign off on promotions for every senior military police officer, prosecutor and judge had already made it clear that they expected a conviction. Under those circumstances, would military justice officials risk their careers by exonerating Azaria if the evidence justified it?

To be clear, based on the evidence that later emerged in court, I think Eisenkot and Ya’alon had good reason to believe Azaria had “transgressed” even when they first spoke out. The officer at the scene had reported the incident to his superiors as a possible crime within minutes of its occurrence, and this report, including damning testimony from other soldiers at the scene, had moved swiftly up the chain of command, leading army officials to decide a criminal investigation was warranted even before B’Tselem published its video.

But by immediately and publicly condemning Azaria – instead of saying, as the army usually does, that his conduct must be deemed unacceptable if proven, but meanwhile, the case is under investigation and the military justice system should be allowed to work without interference–they created an appearance that the deck had been stacked against the soldier. And since most Israelis weren’t following the minutia of the court hearings, that initial impression is what remained: In response to a video released by an irredeemably hostile organization, and whose authenticity had yet to be proven, the two men who headed the army had declared Azaria guilty even before the investigation began.

This impression was reinforced over the ensuing months by the fact that Eisenkot, in particular, refused to stop talking about the case, while demonstrating shocking insensitivity to the way his comments would sound to most Israelis. The very day before the verdict was issued, for instance, he said, “An 18-year-old man serving in the army is not ‘everyone’s child’ … He is a fighter, a soldier, who must dedicate his life to carry out the tasks we give him.”

Obviously, the second part of that statement is true; the army can’t function if its 18-year-old draftees aren’t treated as soldiers and fighters. But to parents, their child is always “their child,” even after he turns 18 and dons a uniform. And because in Israel, most young men do army service, most parents can imagine their own son in any other soldier’s place. In that sense, Azaria is “everyone’s child,” just as kidnapped soldier Gilad Shalit was “everyone’s child.” Israelis therefore overwhelmingly supported freeing 1,027 terrorists to secure his freedom. Israeli parents entrust the army with their most precious possession–their children–and in return, they expect the army to take the best possible care of them that’s consistent with carrying out its military functions.

Thus, when Eisenkot dismissively declared that a soldier isn’t “everyone’s child,” what Israeli parents heard was a refusal to acknowledge that his soldiers are indeed also their children, whose protection must be high on his priority list. And that merely reinforced the impression left by his initial hasty condemnations: In responding to the case, he had given insufficient weight to his responsibility toward his soldiers.

Based on the evidence, I see no reason to think Azaria was in fact convicted unjustly. But from the start, Eisenkot and Ya’alon created the appearance of injustice by routinely speaking out against Azaria when they should simply have kept silent and let the military justice system do its work. The result is that now, many Israelis still aren’t certain Azaria was convicted fairly, and that has translated into overwhelming support for an early pardon.

This case has sowed devastating distrust of both the army’s leadership and its justice system among a large section of the Israeli public. Yet much of that distrust could have been avoided had Ya’alon and Eisenkot simply kept their mouths shut. That neither man proved capable of doing so is a damning indictment of them, and a tragedy for Israel.

Originally published in Commentary on January 5, 2017

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Your ‘Historical Detail,’ Our Real Life

A review of a comedy of manners set in England in the 1920s wouldn’t seem the obvious place to look to understand why the average Westerner really has no business trying to tell Israelis how to run their country. But two sentences in this New York Times book review encapsulate the problem perfectly: “Historical details, which abound, are often fascinating. (Who knew that beards interfere with gas masks?)”

I’m sure most New York Times readers don’t know that. But virtually every adult Israeli does, other than a few recent immigrants. That’s because almost every adult Israeli either has a gas mask or did at one time (mine still lives in my closet), and many of us have actually worn them. They were distributed nationwide before the 1991 Gulf War, out of fear that Saddam Hussein would put chemical warheads on the missiles he launched at Israel during the war. Israel, incidentally, was one of only two countries Saddam launched missiles at, even though it wasn’t one of the 39 countries actually waging war on Iraq at the time.

Since then, Israel has run several nationwide campaigns to get people to exchange their old gas masks for new ones. That gas masks have an expiration date is another fascinating “historical” detail most Westerners probably don’t know (the campaigns ended a few years ago, after the implosion of both Iraq and Syria reduced the risk of a chemical attack). Israel also passed a law requiring every new house to include a bomb shelter capable of doubling as a sealed room, since ordinary bomb shelters offer no protection against chemical attacks (yet another little-known “historical” detail). That’s one of many factors contributing to the country’s sky-high housing costs, but not one Israelis complain about. In-house bomb shelters are even more necessary today, given the thousands of rockets launched at Israel by both Hezbollah and Hamas over the last 10 to 15 years.

Even Israelis who were children in 1991 undoubtedly remember being woken by sirens in the middle of the night, rushing to makeshift sealed rooms (heavy-duty plastic wrap, tape and damp towels), putting on their masks and sitting for hours waiting for the all-clear. The adults also remember being unable to fall asleep at night while awaiting that siren. The chronic sleep deprivation experienced by people under missile bombardment is another little-known historical detail (somehow, it never seems to interest human rights organizations as much as the sleep deprivation of captured terrorists during interrogations).

As for beards, this being Israel, a public battle raged for months in 1990-91 over whether Haredi men, who normally don’t shave for religious reasons, should be given special, more expensive masks that can accommodate beards, or whether they could reasonably be expected to shave, given that in Jewish law, saving a life trumps most other religious precepts. There was even a high-profile court case by a secular bearded man charging discrimination because Haredim got the special masks while he did not (he won).

Of course, there’s no reason why reviewer Susan Coll or any other Westerner should know any of these “historical details.” Thankfully, no Western country has faced the threat of bombardment with chemical warheads, or even conventional rockets, in more than 70 years. The problem is that so many Westerners who share her ignorance feel fully qualified to tell Israel what it should do, despite not knowing the most basic facts about the security challenges it faces.

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