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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