The story of Sgt. Elor Azaria has captured the imagination of many Israelis, and has succeeded in dividing opinions very sharply. Sgt. Azaria is an IDF soldier in the Kfir brigade, who was on duty near Hebron on a day in February when a terrorist stabbed and wounded another IDF soldier friend of his. According to the most reliable eye-witness accounts of the story, Sgt. Azaria shot at the terrorist some time after the terrorist had already been neutralised and was under the full control of other IDF soldiers. The shot fired from Sgt. Azaria’s gun resulted in the death of the terrorist. As a result of this incident, Elor has been court-martialed, and charged with the offense of manslaughter.
The entire episode has played itself out in the public eye. This is due to the intervention of the human rights organisation Btselem, who miraculously had somebody on the scene to record the events, and decided that it was appropriate to publicly air a video taken of the incident. The video turns out to have been edited before being publicised, and without full disclosure of that fact. The act of airing the video in public pushed the matter, and the debate, into the public arena. The IDF was forced to respond publicly saying that it would investigate the incident, and take actions against the soldier if appropriate. This, in turn, sparked a great deal of public support for the soldier, explaining that he has been forced to operate in extremely dangerous conditions as a result of the recent wave of terrorist violence in the West Bank and Israel. It was put forward that his actions should be understood in the context of the situation that has been imposed upon Israel and her soldiers. Israel’s prime minister, minister of defense, chief of general staff and other ministers in government all felt the need to make public statements on the matter in criticising the soldier’s actions. In turn, this drew in the family of the soldier and many others who felt the need to defend him. The incident degenerated into a classic public free-for-all.
The considerations on each side of the argument are clear, and convincing. Israel is a country that is constantly under threat from those who wish to destroy her and her people. This forces all of Israel’s citizens to serve in the army as protection against those who desire to reap destruction. Israel’s soldiers are placed in danger’s way each and every day. This is not a normal or acceptable situation, and places enormous stress on young people who serve in the country’s military. Little consideration seems to be given by the international community to this fact. Instead, Israel’s soldiers are constantly under close scrutiny. Organisations like Btselem ignore the human rights abuses that are inherent in the constant threats to Israel, and they find it only necessary to hold Israel and her soldiers accountable for their reactions in the spur of the moment. This background forms the basis for the support that Elor has received from the public. The fact that he was placed in a difficult situation having to protect his country at such a young age, has elicited sympathy and respect for him, and support for his actions. Elor and his brigade spent many long hours on patrols, knowing that somebody could try to kill them at any moment. Why should terrorists be afforded human rights, when they have no respect for the human rights of others? There are many who believe that the fact that this person was trying to kill another individual in an orchestrated terror attack, immediately removes his right to being treated with respect and removes his human rights. So, for many Israelis, it is inconceivable that a soldier can be tried on charges of killing a terrorist. This is, after all, the job that soldiers are trained to do.
Despite many indications to the contrary, the IDF has strict disciplinary rules that it enforces. These rules have been developed to fit with the environment in which its soldiers are forced to operate, and are designed to take advantage of the Israeli culture to extract the most from each conscripted soldier. The rules are also highly influenced by our Jewish heritage, and the values that come with that. The IDF’s view is that we have the obligation to separate ourselves and our behaviour from those who seek to destroy us, and who behave without compassion or humanity in their quest to achieve this. Even though the IDF’s objective is to protect the people and the State of Israel, this should be achieved in a manner that is true to our cultural and religious teachings. We should never lose sight of the fact that our soldiers are human beings before they are soldiers. It is for this reason that the IDF discipline affords human rights not only to soldiers, but also to terrorists and enemies.
When responding to terrorists and enemy fighters, IDF soldiers have strict rules of engagement that are closely policed. While giving IDF soldiers freedom to do almost anything that is required in the protection of Israeli lives, the rules of engagement strictly forbid shooting anybody unless an order to do so has been given or unless a victim’s life is in immediate danger. Failure to abide by the rules of engagement is taken seriously. An army that has to counter the threats that the IDF sees daily, is forced to have a zero tolerance policy on operational transgressions. There is no room for any soldier to have his or her own agenda or ulterior motive while he is in the service of the IDF. If there is any suspicion that Elor has overstepped the well-known and highly drilled rules of engagement, the correct action is to investigate the matter and give the soldier the right to defend his or her actions. If the soldier felt fear or threat at the moment that he fired his shot, or believed that another life was in imminent danger, he will have his opportunity to present this defence.
I feel confident that the court-martial system will allow the charges to be put to the soldier, while also allowing him the opportunity to defend them in a democratic manner. No external party or member of the public, whether it be Btselem, the minister of defense, the chief of general staff and even the prime minister can, or should pre-empt or interrupt this process. It is extremely regrettable that this process is being played out in public, and it would be far more effective to allow the IDF to do its job internally in the manner that it is accustomed to doing. It is clear that the act by Btselem of bringing this into the public domain effectively forced some of our leadership to respond to this in public. The response, however, to the Btselem accusations was way beyond what was required. Some believe that this was designed to pander to the international community, rather than considering the impact on the soldier and on the IDF as a whole. Elor Azaria has become a villain in the eyes of some, while being a hero in the eyes of others. I regard this act of forcing him into such a high public profile is possibly as stressful as the job that he was doing in the field near Hebron.
There is no doubt that Israel’s young soldiers are forced to endure more stress than other young people of their age, and perhaps even more than professional soldiers in the armies of other countries. Israel is currently the only country in the developed world that is being forced to fight a war within its borders, and the only country whose very existence is constantly questioned and threatened. In spite of this fact, the international community seems to hold Israel to standards that are far in excess of the standards expected of other countries. All of this is extremely unreasonable and even discriminatory, but standing up and shouting about it from the rooftops appears futile. It does not help Israel secure her future, which is the most important task at hand.
It is thanks to the enthusiasm of those like Elor Azaria that Israel is able to protect herself against the constant threats of destruction. Israel’s young soldiers show incredible loyalty and patriotism when serving their country. This enthusiasm needs to be allowed to show itself within a very stringent framework. The framework is not only important for the discipline in the IDF, it is important for our soldiers and our country to retain their humanity. This is the key difference that distinguishes Israel from her enemies, and is something that we would never wish to lose. We would never wish to sink to the levels of those who seek to destroy Israel.
It is important now to allow the court-martial to conduct its work according to the rules and democratic principles under which it operates. No external parties should be allowed to influence this process in any way. No doubt, the verdict of the court-martial will be received with controversy, whatever its outcome. We are forced to accept the verdict, and understand that this is the way in which our democracy operates. Whatever the outcome may be, I feel immensely proud that we are able to retain our humanity even under the most extreme conditions. And I am proud that we demand this humanity of our soldiers, even if the international community does not acknowledge this.