Middle East

A Sergeant's Conviction Exposes an Internal Threat to Israel

A sizable portion of the population believes that any time a soldier kills a terrorist, the killing is just.

Dividing a nation.

Photographer: Heidi Levine/AFP/Getty Images

On Jan. 4, a military court convicted Sergeant Elor Azariah of manslaughter. The prosecution had charged him with violating the Israeli Defense Forces' rules of engagement last March when he shot a Palestinian terrorist who was already subdued. Azariah insisted that he fired because he believed that the seemingly neutralized terrorist still constituted a threat. The court did not believe him, ruling that Azariah fired out of desire for retribution -- the terrorist had just tried to kill some of Azariah’s fellow soldiers. That, the judges said, Israeli justice could not abide.

The former IDF Chief of Staff Moshe Ya’alon, who has shown little sympathy for Azariah since the shooting, pithily captured the intent of the court’s voluminous ruling. “We don’t just shoot at people," he said. "Not even if he’s a terrorist.”

The full significance of the case emerges when seen in the context of a long Israeli history of holding soldiers accountable for the morality of their conduct.

In November 1948, with the War of Independence still raging, the poet Natan Alterman published “For This” in the national labor union newspaper. The poem’s vague language was either about an incident we can no longer identity or a more general concern about IDF conduct. Alterman wrote of a young soldier, “a lion cub flexing,” on a jeep. He comes across an elderly Arab couple. The boy smiles. “I’ll try out the gun,” he says. Then, wrote Alterman, “The old man cradled his face in his hands, and his blood covered the wall.”

Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion, busy at the time with the conduct of the war, immediately got in touch with Alterman: “You have become the voice for the human conscience," he wrote.

"If that conscience," he continued "does not beat in our hearts during these days -- we will not be worthy of the achievements we have had thus far."

He added: "I am requesting your permission for the Ministry of Defense to reprint one hundred thousand copies of the column and to distribute it to every soldier in Israel.”

Shortly after the war, the Israeli author S. Yizhar published "Khirbet Khizeh," a work of historical fiction about Israel’s capture of an Arab village toward the end of the conflict. Everything moves slowly in "Khirbet Khizeh," as if in a fog. Slowly, though, the narrator comes to realize the human toll the war exacted on the Arabs forced from their homes and he feels shame for the way IDF forces had treated Arab noncombatants.

Interestingly, even though they had barely survived that war, Israelis did not turn its author into a pariah. Instead, "Khirbet Khizeh" became an Israeli bestseller and by 1964 was included in the high school curriculum. S. Yizhar was elected to the Knesset several times.

Relentless self-critique was -- and would remain -- a defining characteristic of Israeli society.

In 1956, when IDF soldiers shot and killed 48 unarmed Arabs in Kafr Kassem for violating a curfew that the civilians hadn't been aware of. Several soldiers were convicted. Halevi, the presiding judge, wrote that “The distinguishing mark of a manifestly illegal order is that above such an order should fly, like a black flag, a warning saying: ‘Prohibited!’”

In years to come, the phrase “a manifestly illegal order” would become ubiquitous in Israeli discussions of the moral conduct of war. Though the Azariah trial split this nation deeply, his conviction is, at the end of the day, an endorsement of a longstanding Israeli tradition and thus a triumph for both the rule of law and morality in the Jewish State.

Yet the trial also evoked worrisome reactions that also have historical antecedents. Many Israeli leaders expressed support for the accused soldier. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu telephoned the accused’s father early in the process, which many saw as indicating support for the soldier’s actions. Avigdor Lieberman, a leading hawk, expressed early support for the soldier, though he muted it in light of the conviction. Culture and Sports Minister Miri Regev issued a scathing rebuke of the judges. One wonders how many recall Yizhar or Alterman, or the longstanding commitment to self-critique at the heart of Israeli democracy.

Even more ominous were the right-wing protesters directing their venom at the IDF chief of staff, Gadi Eisenkott, who supported the prosecution. “Gadi, be careful,” they chanted outside the court, “Rabin is waiting for a partner!” As Israeli news broadcast that scene, it was eerily obvious that Israel’s right has yet to learn the lessons of Yitzhak Rabin’s 1995 assassination, and that Israel’s political leadership lacks the stomach to shut them down.

Herein lies an often unrecognized threat to Israel’s survival. After decades of battling Palestinian terror, a sizable portion of Israeli society now believes that any time a soldier kills a terrorist, whatever the circumstances, the killing is just. Despite the military court's ruling, dark clouds on the horizon suggest that Israel needs to attend to the challenge of teaching an entire society that without the rule of law, Israel’s democracy -- and survival -- are at risk.

This was a proud day for Israel, but a worrisome one, too. With no resolution of the grinding conflict in sight, the self-critique and decency long at the heart of Israeli society are in danger. Israelis would do well to recognize that addressing this educational challenge is no less crucial to the Jewish State’s survival than is winning the wars that Elor Azariah was trained to fight.

(Corrects title of Culture and Sports Minister Miri Regev in 13th paragraph.)

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

    To contact the author of this story:
    Daniel Gordis at danielgordis@outlook.com

    To contact the editor responsible for this story:
    Max Berley at mberley@bloomberg.net

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