Israel’s lesson: killing a terrorist is still murder

It’s taken a year of clashes and of moral suffering, and now Sergeant Elor Azaria, has been charged with manslaughter. The soldier was embraced in court by his sobbing mother Oshra while his desperate father Charlie, a policeman, placed his hands in her hair as an angry crowd shouted in support of Elor, “The Israeli military is over!” Azaria is 19 years old. The Minister of Defense Avigdor Lieberman like many other politicians says he doesn’t like the verdict, but accepts and respects the court’s decision.

Sentencing will take place in about a month, which carries a maximum term of 20 years, but no minimum punishment. Until then continuous protests are expected, an endless number of marches by Israel’s most popular sectors; friends from Ramla, one of the country’s poorest cities where the Azaria family home is located; supporters of Beitar Jerusalem, Israel’s most radical and prominent soccer club; and it will be a time in which politicians irrespective of their political color are going to have to take a stance on the verdict.

The latter will be torn between the need to honor the judiciary, always venerated, within the country, and the anger of seeing a soldier in extreme difficulty being convicted of a serious crime however it was reasoned point by point. Many politicians, including a prominent voice on the center-left – Israeli member of parliament Shelly Yachimovich, ask that we proceed immediately with a full pardon, because the blame is certainly not Azaria’s alone, they say, and “a soldier cannot be ababoned.”

The angry crowd outside the courtroom made it clear how the rupture is profound. It’s extremely difficult to embrace such a righteous moral code, which is so monumental and built with such determination that it has become the sole text of an army, the IDF, which requires respect for human life and restraint of force (or “purity of arms,” as it’s called in Hebrew).

The 97-page verdict was delivered by Judge Col. Maya Heller on behalf of the court’s three judges who unanimously rejected Azaria’s line of defense and found him guilty of manslaughter. The young soldier stationed in Hebron on March 24 last year was present when a terrorist threw himself on his comrades and wounded two with a knife. The terrorist was halted and hurt enough to be unable – according to the court – to perform further acts of aggression. Instead, according to the defense, the soldier claimed that he believed that the terrorist was still dangerous and that’s why he shot him. It was impossible to attempt to reach the knife, as Azaria said, who then changed his version of the incident and said that he might have been concealing an explosive belt under his jacket and for this reason he stopped him. Did he kill him? With a contradiction noted by the judges, the young man also claimed that the terrorist was already dead in order to shield himself from manslaughter charges. None of these versions worked.

In fact, the terrorist was no longer able to strike and wasn’t yet dead according to the judges. Azaria therefore, estabilished the court, killed him. Public opinion and feelings are compounded by the fact that there was a video of the incident, shot on a mobile phone, which was promulgated everywhere by a leftist organization. In the past, these types of episodes were buried in the army’s memory because they were tirelessly immersed in war operations, without cellular phones that filmed them: and they were considered reprehensible, but its laundry was washed in the army, and not in the press and on TV and then in court.

It’s easy to understand why the defence of this young soldier has been successful: it’s based on the experience of neverending danger, long days of war where in every corner, which has affected every individual, lurks a life-threatening situation. It’s hidden in the deep anger when comrades are killed and wounded; in the very young age in which young men must serve for three full years in the army, following the reccommendations of their family, who bring up children like any Western society and not like a society living under death’s shadow.

Mom chases after you in the army with her constant advice; the memory of comrades who are gone haunt you, commanders warn you a thousand times about the dangers and yet they order you to fight while trying to calm every aggressive instinct. It’s hard, sometimes too hard, especially when you’re in Hebron, a city where very few Jews remained after the evacuation (even in Hebron, more than 90 percent of its disputed territories have been cleared out) live in a state of siege due to the continuous onslaught of attacks.

But just last Tuesday the military’s chief of Staff, Lt. Gadi Eisenkot said, “a solider isn’t ‘everybody’s child”’ (as Azaria’s father stated), he is a fighter, a soldier who must dedicate his life to carry out the tasks we give him. We cannot be confused about this.”

And there is no reason to be according to the IDF’s Code of Conduct: there it’s written that “you will never treat people thinking about your own benefit, whoever they are, but always take into accout their essence as human beings.” But it’s hard to do this in a country that is so persecuted, that just today sees a beautiful photo of Major Hagai Ben Ari, commander of the paratroppers, smiling within the pages of its newspapers.

Ben Ari, 31, died in the hospital after spending two and a half years in a coma after being critically wounded during Operation Protective Edge in Gaza where he fought to prevent the rain of missiles upon his country. He’s remembered as a hero. He leaves behind a wife and three children.

Translation by Amy K. Rosenthal

This article originally appeared in slightly different form in Italian in Il Giornale (January 5, 2017)

About the Author
Fiamma Nirenstein is a journalist, author, former Deputy President of the Committee on Foreign Affairs of the Italian Chamber of Deputies, and member of the Italian delegation at the Council of Europe.
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