Low attendance at the rally on the evening of April 19 for the release of Cpl. Elor Azaria, who shot a captured terrorist in Hebron, puts the entire incident back to its proper proportions. A soldier is being court-martialed for acting in a highly inappropriate manner. He is not a hero. He is not, as a rally slogan said, "the [soldier] son of all of us” who must be rescued from the authorities. The killing was a one-time incident that should be handled by judges in a military court, not by a bunch of frenzied politicians.
For some unknown reason, on March 24, Azaria shot a terrorist after he had been neutralized, in flagrant violation of Israel Defense Forces (IDF) orders and values. The IDF’s botched handling of the media coverage blew the incident out of all proportions. It shot the affair to the top of the public and political agenda and caused enormous damage to Israel’s image in the international arena. If there is anything that deserves to be investigated apart from what the soldier did, it is the rushed response of the army’s top brass, headed by IDF spokesman Brig. Gen. Moti Almoz. Much like the leak from the military police’s investigation of the event, this response had a snowball effect, which caused an unnecessary uproar throughout the entire country.
In terms of public relations and the media, what the soldier did — which was videotaped by a Palestinian resident of Hebron — was an enormous blow to Israel. The video, which was distributed by the B’Tselem human rights organization, offered an unmediated look at the extreme situations inherent to the occupation. If, under routine circumstances, the IDF and the government struggle to explain harsh images of soldiers with their rifles cocked, standing before long lines of desperate Palestinians, the wanton killing of a terrorist, lying wounded on the ground, sets any efforts to explain the other images back by miles.
Almoz immediately realized how powerful the clip was and launched a vigorous assault on the soldier in the media, even before the military police began their investigation. In fact, the IDF spokesman sounded as if he had already reached a verdict in the case. The very same day it happened, he said, “The chief of staff views this as a serious incident. … This is not the IDF, these are not the values of the IDF and these are not the values of the Jewish people.” He should have come up with a more restrained response instead, expressing his reservations and promising to conduct an in-depth investigation of the incident.
Just a few days later, another sharp response condemning the soldier, this one by Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Gadi Eizenkot, was also released to the media, pouring even more oil on an already raging fire. Within a short time, Knesset members from the right and left had stormed the public arena, turning it into the scene of a major political disturbance.
What happened next was also inexplicable. Sources in the IDF leaked to the media that the shooter would be tried for murder. It was this leak that finally turned a point-specific incident into a brush fire burning out of control. The emotional intensity is easy to understand. The public mood in Israel was already tense and polarized because of the ongoing wave of terrorism, and some people regarded the soldier as a kind of victim. It was a short path from there to efforts to turn him into a hero.
All it took was to hear the rapidly changing tone of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. When the event first happened, he condemned it forthwith, but then, two days later, he softened his tone and even called Azaria’s father, in an effort to determine where public opinion in Israel really was at the time. Minister of Education Naftali Bennett and former Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman were also among the many public figures who sought an opportunity to show support for the shooter’s father. The circus continued, the voices grew louder and Minister of Defense Moshe Ya’alon and the Chief of Staff found themselves coming under an unprecedented and disconcerting political attack. They were accused of abandoning the soldier, of treason, of being leftists and just about everything else.
When it was announced that the military prosecutor would be indicting Azaria for manslaughter, not murder, certain sectors of the public interpreted this as proof that the IDF leadership and Ya'alon were too quick to accuse this “hero of Israel.” The incident turned into a skirmish, pitting the image of a corporal who acted against orders, together with his supporters, against the chief of staff and the minister of defense. By then, the Azaria family had already acquired the services of media advisers, including a former member of Knesset, Sharon Gal. The public struggle heated up. Azaria started to become a folk hero, persecuted by the authorities.
To prevent the incident from getting out of control like this, the right thing to do would have been to announce that an investigation was underway. Only after there was an indictment would the chief of staff or the IDF spokesman release a statement about immoral behavior that did not accord with the IDF’s values. Comments by the top military commanders would have been received with greater attentiveness if they were based on what appeared in the indictment: “The soldier shot him in the head at close range, in violation of the rules for opening fire and with no operational justification, while the terrorist was lying on the ground wounded. He was not in the middle of conducting an attack, nor did he pose an immediate threat.” These words are both harsh and clear. It is too bad that they only came after the soldier had already been tried in the court of public opinion. In fact, public opinion may have benefited the politicians, but it was very bad for the IDF, which should keep itself out of this discourse.
On the evening of the rally in Tel Aviv in support of the soldier, it became clear that the Israeli public voted with its feet. By failing to show up, they offered their support to the IDF. This healthy public instinct prevented the whole affair from snowballing any further. Common sense prevailed. What seemed, however briefly, like a mass movement to win the release of a soldier who was portrayed as taken hostage returned to its proper proportions. It would be a good idea for the IDF to conduct a comprehensive investigation into its botched media response. After all, it was largely responsible for the unnecessary uproar of recent days.