Israel Pulse

Why IDF chief commuted Hebron shooter's sentence

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Article Summary
IDF Chief of Staff Gadi Eizenkot commuted the sentence of Hebron shooter Elor Azaria, not as a sign of pardon but for Israeli society to heal.

The Sept. 27 decision by Israel Defense Forces (IDF) Chief of Staff Lt. Gen Gadi Eizenkot to reduce the sentence of the Hebron shooter Elor Azaria by four months was an anticlimactic ending to one of the most turbulent affairs in the 50-year history of Israel's occupation of the West Bank.

It was more than just the harsh news surrounding the terrorist attack in Har Adar on Sept. 26 and the political uproar surrounding a Sept. 27 public event that marked 50 years of settlement in the West Bank that pushed the latest news about Eizenkot's decision from the headlines. More important was the balanced decision, which was made after many long, in-depth discussions, both within the military and with external legal advisers. This put an end to the Azaria saga.

On Jan. 4, Azaria was convicted of manslaughter in the killing of a wounded Palestinian assailant in Hebron. Azaria was sent to prison Aug. 9 to serve an 18-month sentence, after his appeal was rejected. At the time, the court ruled that Azaria acted contrary to the values of the State of Israel and the IDF, and that "his action was severe and immoral. He took no responsibility for what he did, nor did he show any remorse." Yet even the harsh language with which his appeal was rejected was not enough to cause Azaria to express an inkling of regret. Instead, he declared that he would go to prison with his head held high.

A letter signed by the IDF deputy chief of staff, informing Azaria that his sentence had been reduced, emphasized that this in no way diminished the severity of his action, which was proscribed and contrary to the orders and values of the IDF. Nor did it diminish "the important message expressed throughout, in the position of the military command and the court's ruling, which rejected your severe actions."

The letter noted that the chief of staff resorted to pity and compassion in making his decision, and that he "regards the failures in your actions with severity, and considers them a distortion of the IDF's values, as expressed in the court's sentence, too. It also sees great significance in the firm message coming from them and the way the command handled the event."

While the Azaria affair itself received record coverage, the reporting on the chief of staff's decision was moderate at best. There was almost no political reaction or shockwaves across social media. What this shows is that the public is tired of the affair, with all its twists and turns. The fact that Eizenkot made his decision counter to the position of the military advocate general actually sent a balanced and comforting message to the public.

This was more than just the reduction of the sentence of a soldier who committed the crime of shooting a neutralized terrorist and then refused to take any responsibility or even express remorse for his action. As the head of a people's army, Eizenkot found the right way to condemn this vile act, while at the same time showing that he is not disconnected from public sentiment. He was cognizant of the mood among those parents who must send their children to the army to serve in the occupied territories under impossible circumstances, and among the young people, who will enlist in the IDF in the coming years.

Azaria shot the Palestinian assailant on March 24, 2016, and the affair became a public issue shortly thereafter. The IDF soldier became known as the "Hebron shooter" after he was filmed shooting a neutralized terrorist dead during a military operation. The video sent shockwaves around the world. Israelis were outraged, mainly because it became a tool in a populist political battle by the right from the moment it was released.

During the year and a half in which the affair unfolded, it provided countless headlines and live broadcasts, focusing on all its legal, political and public ramifications. The moment the ban on releasing his name was lifted, Azaria became a soldier with a face, a name, parents and siblings. The political right immediately adopted Azaria as an icon. It stood at his side and tried to turn him into "the soldier for all of us" and a veritable hero, worthy of a medal.

The right embraced Azaria with a passion. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and various senior ministers, including Education Minister Naftali Bennett, placed warm phone calls to his parents. This turned his hearing into a political trial and made Azaria an icon. For the right, Azaria became a symbol of supreme courage. He was someone who dared to do the proper thing by taking a terrorist's life. To the left, he represented all that is ugly about 50 years of occupation and the impossible situations imposed on very young soldiers.

The affair also exposed public exhaustion with and distrust of the peace process and its indifference toward the occupation. Opinion polls during this time indicated that the Israeli public felt empathy toward Azaria and supported granting him clemency.

Eizenkot was forced into the position of being one of the people most identified with the affair as it spun out of control. What began as a very specific military incident turned into an explosive public and political incident. The chief of staff and other senior officers learned quickly that in the age of social networks, the usual tools cannot be used to control public opinion and that ruthless criticism is difficult to quash. The country's top military brass and the judges in the Azaria case were subjected to derision, obscenities and threats in what will be remembered as a low point in the relationship between the army and the people.

In an era in which politicians on the right have abandoned all restraints when reacting to important legal institutions such as the Supreme Court, the Azaria affair afforded the chief of staff, the army and its judges with an opportunity to show the moral superiority of the system. They walked away from the military, public and political uproar with their heads held high. The military advocate general proved that the army is stronger than that and that it has a spine. It showed that the IDF and Israeli society at large can contain the affair in a reasonable manner. The military court revealed that despite the circumstances of the occupation, the IDF can still maintain basic morality and deal with those who stray from that path. Most of all, it proved this on an international level.

At the same time, the Azaria affair must be seen as a watershed moment, where red lines concerning the army and its chief of staff were crossed. When the prime minister makes do with a stammered support for his chief of staff over a soldier who went astray, something is awfully wrong in the society as a whole. The question that should bother everyone is what will happen with the next Azaria, considering how official symbols such as the army and court system are being worn down by the ongoing occupation.

Mazal Mualem is a columnist for Al-Monitor's Israel Pulse and formerly the senior political correspondent for Maariv and Haaretz. She also presents a weekly TV show covering social issues on the Knesset channel. On Twitter: @mazalm3

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