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January 6, 2017 8:28 am

A Testament to Israeli Engagement: The Elor Azaria Story

avatar by Ruthie Blum

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Sgt. Elor Azaria, left. Photo: AmnestyUK.

Sgt. Elor Azaria, left. Photo: AmnestyUK.

On Wednesday, the verdict was issued in the trial of IDF infantry soldier Elor Azaria. The military court ruled that the 19-year-old medic, serving in the Shimshon Battalion of the Kfir Brigade, was guilty of manslaughter and unbecoming conduct, for his part in the March 24 killing of a knife-wielding Palestinian terrorist in the Tel Rumeida neighborhood of Hebron.

Due to the controversial nature of the trial, which from the outset was a political lightning rod, the verdict was not only broadcast live on all Israeli channels, but it was read aloud by the judge in its entirety. The many months’ worth of witness testimony and arguments from the prosecutors and defense attorneys boiled down to two main questions. The first was whether it was Azaria’s bullet that actually killed the subdued terrorist, whom he shot in the head. The second was whether Azaria’s action was warranted, or genuinely perceived as such by the soldier — who said he believed the terrorist was wearing a suicide belt under his jacket — causing him to make the kind of split-second judgment call required when facing a real-time enemy threat.

The reason that this particular case swept the country by storm had to do with the way it was handled from the minute that Azaria’s comrades came under attack at the height of the so-called “lone wolf intifada” — characterized by stabbings, car-rammings and, most recently, arson.

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The left-wing foreign-funded NGO B’Tselem, which holds its own government responsible for terrorism against Israelis — on the grounds that Palestinian violence is an expression of justified frustration at their plight as an “occupied” people — was on the scene filming the event.

To counteract the group’s purposeful ambush to highlight IDF wrongdoing, particularly for international consumption — politicians and much of the public promptly came to Azaria’s defense. Many of us railed against the overly stringent rules of engagement that govern the Israeli military. The Hebrew term for the concept — “purity of arms” — says it all in a nutshell.

Meanwhile, members of the IDF top brass and the former defense minister made statements indicating that they had already decided that Azaria deserved to be punished. So, a case that should have been treated to a thorough internal investigation before it came to light was an immediate circus at which everyone had ring-side seats.

It was clear, then, that whatever the verdict turned out to be, a large chunk of the population was going to be livid. The actual facts of the case itself got completely lost in the fray.

They were not lost in court, however. The detailed explanation of how the conclusion was reached, based on the defendant’s contradictory statements and witness testimony — that Azaria cool-headedly killed the already seriously wounded terrorist — was persuasive. The judge carefully weighed the extenuating circumstances, and the valid argument that the volatile situation in the West Bank and daily assaults on soldiers and civilians created an atmosphere of tension that might easily cause someone to opt to be safe, rather than sorry.

As I told my kids as each donned an IDF uniform for the first time: “Don’t go into battle with a law book in your hand. I would rather visit you in prison than at a cemetery.”

But even loose rules of engagement guiding an army in a democratic country do not allow for killing out of revenge, regardless of whether an assailant deserves to die, as the terrorist in the Azaria case certainly did.

Now that the verdict has been handed down, what is left is to determine Azaria’s fate. In the hysterical cacophony on the Right over what it sees as a huge injustice done to a young man who could have been “any of our sons,” a truly miraculous and encouraging phenomenon is being missed. Knesset members from across the political spectrum are coming out in favor of a light sentence and/or presidential pardon for Azaria. This is no small thing, and its significance must not be overlooked.

A guilty verdict, coupled with a pardon, would be the perfect end to this horrible story.

Ruthie Blum is the managing editor of The Algemeiner.

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