The Israeli right is livid that soldier Elor Azaria has been convicted of killing a Palestinian man — and is responding with demonstrations, tirades against his judges and calls for a pardon.
The most prominent politician of the settler-right, Naftali Bennett, has called the verdict of manslaughter for Azaria’s killing of an incapacitated terrorist as “outrageous,” and claimed that it was decided before the trial ever started by political players. On social media, some of Azaria’s supporters are demanding a pardon, while others are condemning the court. Still others are declaring him a hero.
The fury found a new outlet on Sunday, when a Palestinian terrorist intentionally plowed a truck into soldiers in Jerusalem, killing four and wounding 13. Video footage showed most members of the group of army cadets that was assembled nearby fleeing instead of going towards the truck to open fire and end the attack. Eitan Rund shot the attacker, who died on the scene — and he lost no time in declaring that the uniformed men and women had hesitated because of the Azaria verdict.
Rund told Army Radio: “There was hesitation to open fire. I have no doubt that this was a significant factor, because all they tell them [in the military] recently is to be careful.” Critics of the verdict trumpeted this claim, insisting that it is already eating away at soldiers’ confidence. Though Rund subsequently said that he had spoken too quickly, the so-called “Azaria effect” was already under discussion nationwide.
The army insisted that two soldiers had also shot at the terrorist, and others pointed out that the soldiers in question are still in training, are from rear units and said that the natural impulse to flee probably had more impact than any calculated response to a legal ruling. One soldier who was there, Noam Kadar, dismissed the claims as nonsense, writing on Facebook: “None of you should dare compare a truck travelling at a hundred kilometers an hour to a terrorist who is lying down, incapacitated.”
As the row over the Azaria effect gathers pace, Deputy Defense Minister Eli Ben-Dahan is penning legislation that would give Azaria immunity, and could ensure immunity for soldiers in his situation in the future.
The Azaria story started in Hebron nine months ago, when army medic Azaria fatally shot Abdel Fattah al-Sharif, a Palestinian man who had stabbed a soldier a few minutes previously.
Israeli society is so split by this judgment that it’s reminiscent of the intensity felt in the U.S. around the 1995 O.J. Simpson trial. There have been calls for attacks against IDF Chief of Staff Gadi Eisenkot. Two people have been arrested for advocating attacks against judges, and following various other calls for attacks the judges have been given beefed-up security.
‘To some, the army and its courts have abandoned a soldier who was doing his best to serve his country, and is poised to undermine the confidence that soldiers have in the establishment. To others, it’s a verdict that communicates an important message — namely that the IDF operates according to the law and that there’s zero tolerance for acts of vengeance, even against terrorists.’
The divisions are so deep that on Saturday night, a rally was held in Tel Aviv calling for unity and against the incitement to violence that has been heard.
Most Israelis shun incitement, but recognize that the divisions on this issue are not going to ease. To some, the army and its courts have abandoned a soldier who was doing his best to serve his country, and is poised to undermine the confidence that soldiers have in the establishment. To others, it’s a verdict that communicates an important message — namely that the IDF operates according to the law and that there’s zero tolerance for acts of vengeance, even against terrorists.
Al-Sharif was already motionless when Azaria opened fire. But Azaria argued that he feared the terrorist had a bomb strapped to him and still posed a danger — and said that this fear should have been enough to acquit him, even though there turned out to be no bomb.
The court responded that Azaria didn’t fire because he saw danger, but rather that he wanted to take revenge against a terrorist. Judges said that Azaria claimed after the attack that “the terrorist deserved to die” because he had stabbed one of his friends, and acted on this. They also said that Azaria’s fire did cause Al-Sharif’s death, and that Azaria knew this was the likely outcome when he pulled the trigger.
As Israel polarized over the verdict, one famous IDF veteran and terror victim decried the exchanges that were taking place. Ziv Shilon, who lost an arm in a Hamas attack in 2012, stated on Facebook that he had been crying “for the people of Israel that are tearing themselves to pieces with unprecedented hate.” He wrote: “I cried for my hand that I left in Gaza and I asked myself, maybe for the first time in my life, whether it was worth fighting for a people that hates itself” — and urged people to join him in Rabin Square on Saturday night for the unity rally.
Those who took up his call included three prominent spokeswomen for Israeli unity — all of whom came to the job through personal tragedy. They are the mothers of three young Jewish men who were kidnapped and killed by Hamas in 2014: Eyal Yifrah, Gil-Ad Shaer and Naftali Fraenkel. There were politicians in attendance from Zionist Union, Yesh Atid and Likud. There were also people angrily opposing the event, including Karmi Buzaglo, a campaigner for Azaria, who stormed the stage until security personnel removed him.
Sentencing day for Azaria will be next month and it’s unclear what final outcome from the trial, if any, could help the country to heal. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has already said that he wants to see him pardoned. “I support a pardon for Elor Azaria,” he said straight after the verdict. “This is a difficult and painful day for all of us — and first and foremost for Elor and his family, for IDF soldiers, for many soldiers and for the parents of our soldiers, and me among them.”
Netanyahu has angered both the right and the left on the Azaria issue. After the killing he was initially disapproving of Azaria, infuriating the right. But he irritated the left by later phoning the Azaria parents to show them support and, after the verdict, failing to deliver a strong message against incitement, commenting on the case before it was over and not highlighting the rule of law. He has also angered some others, who have implied that he is playing politics instead of seriously discussing Azaria’s fate. The rightist Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman said shortly after Netanyahu’s statement that calls for a pardon reflect “ignorance and slogans.”
The sad truth is that if the political leadership had properly stood with the military and its legal processes, the situation today would be simpler. Lieberman is the same man who, nine months ago, submitted a request to visit Azaria so he could tell him “that this ganging up on him is inappropriate, and that he has supporters, elected leaders among them.” Netanyahu failed to show steadfast backing for Chief of Staff Eisenkot, failed to calm the situation by countering the emotionally charged claim that Azaria is “everyone’s son” and, as Eisenkot saw it, infantilized him instead of treating him as a serious soldier whose actions should be open to scrutiny. He failed to say loudly and clearly enough that no, this wasn’t the abandonment by the establishment of a young man, but rather the establishment doing what, to retain its moral credentials, it must do.
One wonders whether if all political leaders would have mustered the courage to shun populism and fully stand by the army, and if none — the rightist Bennett and his party included — would have avoided the temptation to elevate Azaria to a martyr or a hero, Israel would be in a very different situation now. The judges would have reached their decision, and the public would now have the feeling that their leaders had stood by the process and the judgment. A pardon now could have been a healer.
That ship has sailed — a pardon today would be seen as a vindication of Azaria’s actions and a message to the legal system not to waste its time in the future. It’s heart-wrenching that a young man will have to go to prison after being put in a situation that no person should have to face — but it’s what makes the Israeli claim that it has a thoroughly moral army more than just a slogan.
Nathan Jeffay’s column appears in the NY Jewish Week twice a month.