The morning of Jan. 4 saw the end — for now at least — of an egregious incident, which sent shockwaves through the Israel Defense Forces (IDF), the political system and Israeli society in general over the past 10 months. A military tribunal convicted Sgt. Elor Azaria of manslaughter for the killing of a Palestinian terrorist, Abdel Fattah al-Sharif, after Sharif and another terrorist attacked an IDF post in Hebron on March 24.
The entire incident was captured on film by volunteers from B’Tselem human rights organization and others on the scene. Azaria arrived several moments after the conclusion of the incident, when Sharif was already immobile and lying in a puddle of blood on the ground; he had been shot by an IDF soldier in order to prevent the attack. Azaria can be seen taking two steps forward, aiming his gun and shooting Sharif in the head at close range. One of the video clips went viral, resulting in an almost unprecedented blast of responses. The IDF spokesman, chief of staff and minister of defense were all quick to condemn the soldier’s actions, and the military police launched an investigation. Azaria claimed that he felt threatened by the wounded terrorist, and that he was worried he might have an explosive device. So he shot him.
Masses of Israelis came out in support of the soldier. A popular movement emerged in support of him, with the backing of right-wing politicians. The most prominent of these was Avigdor Liberman, who was then just a member of the opposition. The public spat has continued until now. This is the first time the Israeli public has turned against the IDF’s top brass en masse, condemning even Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Gadi Eizenkot, who was, until then, a sacrosanct figure in Israeli society.
The social and moral extremes of Israeli society came out against each other in full force. On one side were the “values of the IDF” (a term much used in Israel to demonstrate the high morals of its army), orders for opening fire (only when the target presents a danger for human lives) and the moral superiority that the IDF and Israel have prided themselves on for generations. On the opposing side were the uncompromising support of the people for its soldiers, the popular belief that “any terrorist who attacks Jews deserves to die” and the way that a growing sector of the Israeli public has come to demonize human rights organizations, the far left and various iterations of political correctness.
This conflict is also reminiscent of what happened in the recent election campaign in the United States, in which Donald Trump, a man driven by his most primal instincts, defeated the intellectually oriented Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton. In Israel, it was a conflict between gut and the head, and in the military court in Tel Aviv on Jan. 4 the head won — at least for now. The IDF can continue to take pride in its claim that it is “the most moral army in the world.” It is hard to imagine that many other armies would do the same as the IDF and try its soldiers for simply killing a terrorist who stabbed their friends a few minutes earlier. In many cases, incidents like this are whitewashed. In other cases, they end with some symbolic disciplinary hearing. This week, Azaria was convicted of manslaughter.
Azaria entered the court at 9:52 a.m., and was greeted with applause. Outside the Ministry of Defense compound, civilians gathered to demonstrate in support of Azaria, while the various media channels broadcast the court’s decision live from every possible angle. The court-martial was called the “trial of the century,” but that even fails to capture the enormity of the event. On the morning of Jan. 4, Channel 10 alone positioned 10 reporters, anchors and commentators around the military court in Tel Aviv’s Defense Ministry compound and other broadcast locations. Channel 2 was not far behind, nor was Channel 1. Joining them were reporters and journalists from the radio, the internet and various newspapers.
If an alien had landed here from outer space, he would have thought that Israel was celebrating its 70th Independence Day rather than just keeping up with the verdict in a relatively simple trial as a panel of three judges read their verdict. But this was a trial that ripped Israel apart for the past few months, both internally and externally. It turned into a political skirmish between right and left, with an ongoing snowball effect.
One particularly interesting aspect of this whole incident is the response of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. It will be recalled that immediately after the incident, Netanyahu came out in full support of Eizenkot and then-Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon. He even released a statement condemning the soldier’s actions. Just 48 hours later, however, after Netanyahu’s son Yair drew his attention to the fact that the people — particularly on the right — actually supported Azaria, Netanyahu veered sharply to the right. He abandoned Eizenkot and Ya’alon in the battlefield, and even made a very public phone call to Azaria’s father, despite Azaria being accused of manslaughter. In harsh conversations that Netanyahu had with Ya’alon at the time, a political source said on condition of anonymity that Netanyahu told his defense minister, “You have no idea what is happening on the social networks. The people identify with the soldier.” It was at that point that the two parted ways. Ya’alon remained steadfast behind his chief of staff, the IDF leadership, the orders for opening fire and the IDF’s supposedly sacred values. Netanyahu was in lockstep with the bolting herd on social media.
The verdict finally determined the fate of Azaria, though he is likely to appeal the ruling in the Supreme Court. Sentencing will come at a later date. The final outcome of this public, social and moral struggle has yet to be determined. The fact that Liberman, who supported Azaria in the first few weeks after the incident, took up Ya’alon’s position as defense minister, proves that it is not at all clear who will win in this fight. Azaria was convicted, but Ya’alon has been removed from office and is now sitting at home, plotting his revenge, while Liberman is now the minister of defense.
A riot broke out outside the court, when demonstrators from the far right, led by a group of fans of the Beitar Jerusalem soccer team, who calls themselves “La Familia,” began to attack journalists and demand Azaria’s release.
The verdict confirms the IDF’s values, the chain of command and the orders for opening fire. On the other hand, everything else remains open, exposed and hemorrhaging. Israeli society is in a very different place from that championed by the panel of judges, led by Col. Maya Heller. The court ruled that Azaria’s comment after shooting the terrorist — “He deserved to die” — was unacceptable.
According to large swaths of Israelis, these comments were, in fact, completely acceptable, while the verdict was unfounded. The outcome of this conflict has yet to be determined.