The Azaria trial and the rift over orders to shoot

All three judges of an Israeli military court Wednesday, Jan. 4, unanimously found Sgt. Elor Azaria guilty of manslaughter for the fatal shooting of an injured terrorist in Hebron in March 2016, after an attack on soldiers. The conviction was announced after a three-hour reading of the verdict by the lead judge, Col. Maya Heller. The court threw out the entire case for the defense in favor of the testimony given by the commanders at the scene of the incident and the prosecution. The cause of the terrorist’s death was judged to be the bullet Sgt. Azaria fired to his head, although the court ruled that there was no danger of the terrorist continuing his attack. Nor was the suspicion of the accused that he concealed explosives confirmed after the fact.

According to the verdict, Azaria was motivated purely by revenge for the terrorist’s attempt to stab his friend. Col. Heller rejected arguments that the court was influenced by social, political or military controversy surrounding the case and stressed that it was guided solely by the facts of the case. The convicted soldier’s lawyer said he would appeal the verdict. Sentence is to be announced at a later date.

Outside the court, hundreds of protesters demonstrated against the Hebron soldier’s trial.

Seven months ago, Sgt. Elior Azaria was put on trial before a three-judge panel of the Jaffa Military Court. He was charged with manslaughter for shooting dead in March last year a Palestinian terrorist, who had attacked soldiers with a knife and was already shot and injured.
Release of the videotape which showed the terrorist lying prone on the ground but still alive when Azaria came on the scene went viral and made the case a cause célèbre.

The trial turned on the question of whether the terrorist was immobilized or still posed a threat. The popular controversy on this question led to Moshe Yaalon’s resignation as defense minister, after he argued that Azaria, then 19, was out of line and should stand trial for murder.

He was supported by the incumbent chief of staff, Lt. Gen. Gady Eisenkott.

Azaria’s family mounted a popular campaign to justify his actions, claiming that he acted in the conviction that he was saving lives. His conduct was backed by many uniformed men through the social media, and a number of former generals volunteered to testify in his defense.

debkafile’s military analysts note that the controversy reflects long efforts to introduce politics – or a brand of political correctness – into IDF decision-making. Soldiers are under orders to shoot terrorists in the heat of an attack – that is not in question, but since the Azaria affair, the army under Gen. Eisenkott, is working on refinements, such as when it is permissible and when it is not.

Both Yaalon and Eisenkott went overboard in their attempt to improperly influence the course of the military trial sub judice by public statements disparaging the accused soldier.

Last week, in pursuance of this campaign, the former defense minister appeared before 1,000 18-year olds about to join the army for three years of compulsory service. First, he rehashed the events leading up to Azaria’s action and his own resignation.

On March 24, he said, two terrorists came up to the Gilbert checkpoint at Tel Romeida in Hebron and started stabbing a soldier and officer who were manning it. But then, Yaalon burst out:  “If we don’t preserve our human values, the IDF will be no better than Daesh!” the implication being that Azaria was no better than an Islamist State killer.
This was a move to prejudge the trial and sway the three military judges, just in case they were persuaded that Azaria was not trigger-happy but had shot the prone terrorist in the belief that as a soldier it was his duty to protect the immediate environment from further menace.

The chief of staff had his say on Tuesday, Jan. 3, the day before the court was to hand down its verdict. He declared that he had a duty to “preserve IDF values.”

Our military analysts have searched in vain the IDF military codebook for a definition of “IDF values” among the often contradictory orders of when to open fire. They wonder how a young conscript serving at a checkpoint -and knowing he is the target at any moment for a sudden knifing, shooting, bombing or vehicular attack – can be expected to decide on the spot which “military values” to apply.

In his basic training, he is taught that his duty as a soldier is to fight the enemy and protect civilians. Confusion at the vital moment of an attack could cost precious lives.

However, Yaalon and Eisenkott have made it crystal clear that, regardless of the verdict handed down by a court after a long trial and exhaustive questioning of a flock of witnesses – both for the defense and the prosecution – they are determined to perpetuate the divisive, politically-tainted controversy in the country and its armed forces.  

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