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Forget not Elor Azaria: IDF rules of engagement are critical for domestic public support

In the battle to defend the IDF's moral compass from sloganeering populists, defeat is not an option

For the second time this year, an Israeli military court ruled that one of the Israel Defense Forces’ (IDF) soldiers, Elor Azaria, acted illegally when he opened fire at a Palestinian knife attacker who was lying on the ground with gunshot wounds in Hebron last year.

The two court cases have generated an ongoing political firestorm in Israel, with Azaria’s supporters claiming that he has been abandoned by the very military and country that sent him to serve in the volatile West Bank. The IDF’s senior command rejects those claims out of hand, saying that Azaria breached the military’s rules of engagement when he took it upon himself to open fire on a downed attacker, no longer posing a threat.

Away from the specifics of the Hebron incident, the IDF views the incident and the associated controversy as part of a larger battle that is no less important than battles fought against Hezbollah and Hamas. This battle is not fought on a physical battlefield, but in the hearts and minds of young conscripts, and in the wider Israeli society. It is the fight to defend the military’s professional rules of engagement, and the military’s moral compass, from those who seek to impose populist, feel-good slogans and who would like to tell the IDF how it should conduct itself on the ground, when the military’s procedures conflict with their ideological viewpoint.

From the point of view of the military’s high command, this is a high stakes battle, and losing is not an option. A loss would mean the gradual deterioration of the IDF, from a moral, disciplined, hierarchical organization, in which subordinate combat soldiers listen to the instructions of their commanders, and know what can and cannot be done, to another Middle Eastern militia, whose members can open fire willy-nilly, as they see fit. A loss would mean dragging down the whole of Israeli society with it, and allowing the enemy’s violence to infiltrate Israel’s own sense of right and wrong. Again, losing is not an option.

With this in mind, the IDF Chief of Staff Lt.-Gen. Gadi Eisenkot firmly insisted that Azaria’s actions were illegal. Eisenkot was the former commander of the IDF’s Judea and Samaria Division during the bloody days of the Second Intifada, and is intimately aware of the difficulties, dilemmas, and complexities facing young Israeli soldiers who are thrust into the West Bank to engage terrorism in the midst of a hostile civilian population.

Precisely because of those challenges, Eisenkot believes, the military must not begin to allow itself to go down a slippery slope that ends with random acts of violence that contravene the military’s code of engagement. Eisenkot’s position made him an easy target in the court of public opinion for those who sought to portray him in a negative light. The chief of staff, together with other senior commanders, were accused by Azaria’s supporters of rushing to judgment before the military court could process the case and reach a verdict.

This accusation comes from a misunderstanding of the military’s procedures. When suspicions of illegal conduct come to light, the military launches its own disciplinary investigation, based on the testimonies of commanding officers, and quickly reaches conclusions on whether the action in question was proper or not. In cases where the action is believed to have a criminal dimension, the Military Police is brought in to launch a parallel, second investigation, which is unrelated to the IDF’s internal disciplinary inquiry. The Military Police and the IDF’s prosecutors then decide on whether to proceed with charges. In Azaria’s case, Eisenkot had accepted the disciplinary conclusions of the soldier’s commanding officers, yet was falsely accused of preempting the military justice system.

In the world of social media, mass talkbacks, and knee-jerk instant reactions, a professional principled stance like that of Eisenkot will often be in an inferior position on the media battlefield. Still, Eisenkot’s stance will probably be internalized by the rank and file of the IDF, even by those who are sympathetic to Azaria’s fight to clear his name. The IDF’s young conscripts now know that despite the challenges of serving in the West Bank, their commanders expect them to adhere to the rules of engagement, and that those who fire their weapons in contravention of those rules will face consequences, irrespective of political and media controversies that will continue to rage outside.

The views expressed above do not represent the views of the IDF, the Foreign Ministry or the organization Our Soldiers Speak. They are reflective solely of the views of the author. Visit Our Soldiers Speak

About the Author
Yaakov Lappin is a military and strategic affairs expert. His areas of coverage are focused on Israel’s defense establishment, and the country’s strategic environment. He receives briefings on a regular basis from senior military and intelligence officials. Yaakov is the Israel correspondent for Jane’s Defense Weekly, and a regular guest on international TV and radio outlets, providing commentary on defense issues. In 2011, Yaakov published his first book, Virtual Caliphate, which explored the online jihadist presence, mindset, and recruitment method. He is in-house analyst for Our Soldiers Speak (www.oursoldiersspeak.org)
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