For many Israelis, today is one of mixed emotions. On one hand, today is a great day. With Elor Azariah’s sentencing to 18 months’ internment, the rule of law prevails. Azariah lied to the court and changed his story five times. This alone is contemptible. That he killed a man and prevented him being tried in a court of law is a travesty of justice. And had the terrorist been wearing a suicide vest, which Azariah at one point maintained was a motivation for acting, shooting him could feasibly have caused it to detonate and cost people their lives. Quite apart from any moral arguments, the shooting was utterly reckless.
On the other hand, Israeli soldiers stand on the front line between a democracy and murderous terrorism. They contend with unspeakable cynicism and evil perpetrated by organisations which manipulate international law to their advantage. They are frequently put in situations where there are no right answers but many wrong ones. All these take their toll on Israeli soldiers, the IDF, and Israeli society as a whole.
The clamour for Azariah to be pardoned did not erupt spontaneously or develop in a vacuum: Israelis are sick of seeing the murderers of innocent people sent to “five star prisons” where they gain university degrees paid for by Israeli taxes and from which they are released after only a few short years. Israelis are aware of the immense international scrutiny and pressure the to which the IDF’s actions are subjected, and the disproportionate number of condemnations of Israel’s actions receive in the UN, a number which far exceeds the condemnations apportioned to the planet’s worst human rights offenders. They feel that the hands of the soldiers who protect them are tied behind their backs as the IDF attempts to delay shooting for as long as possible in order to both retain the moral high ground and also satisfy international opinion.
Time and again, these policies put Israeli lives in danger and send a message to would-be attackers that Israel is not prepared to defend itself. While this particular case is indefensible, it would be a mistake to evaluate Israeli reactions on logic alone. While the willingness of some Israelis to justify Azariah’s actions may be wrong, their motivations stem from something else entirely. Their reactions are about more than this one case; they are visceral, informed by their experiences of seeing the IDF unable to prevent a vicious wave of innumerable stabbings, shootings and car ramming attacks which have left many dead and even more injured. In some cases, soldiers have even run away from the scene rather than engage a terrorist with gunfire.
Increasingly, Israeli soldiers are actors not in a traditional military theatre of operations, but in a “performance” staged by demonstrators. They are recorded by members of the press who frequently conveniently appear at the scene, clutching video cameras, waiting for the soldiers to make a mistake or react aggressively to a Palestinian provocation. Only a few seconds of edgy and selectively edited footage is needed to create an international incident.
Israelis are conflicted because there are bigger issues at play here. Yes, the rule of law must be preserved. For that reason, many Israelis were quick to condemn Azariah’s actions and are happy that he has been punished. And yes, it is abundantly clear to many Israelis that killing a man lying prone and immobile on the ground is cowardly and immoral – even if he is a terrorist who only moments earlier had attempted to kill people. But to really understand why so many Israelis want to see Azariah pardoned and are willing to justify his actions, it’s essential to identify and address their legitimate concerns and fears.