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The Azaria Affair: How Israel’s Leadership Betrayed Democracy

Last week, Elor Azaria’s appeal was rejected. Azaria is the IDF soldier who fatally shot an incapacitated Palestinian who had attacked a fellow soldier with a knife. Azaria’s actions were caught on camera, leaving little room for his defense lawyers to maneuver.

The verdict in Azaria’s appeal should have been the final word on one of the most widely publicized trials in Israeli history. But the real story in the Azaria affair is the moral, not the legal, issue, and the moral debate is alive and well.

Azaria has become something of a cause célèbre in Israel. Many still believe that Azaria was in the right, as indicated by another recent event: Many on social media condemned a soldier from Neve Tzuf who neutralized a terrorist without killing him. But anyone who values Israel’s security needs to be troubled by the fact that even after the court had its say a second time, the public and its leaders continue to reject the basic principle that it is wrong to kill a person who no longer presents a danger.

On top of that, the Azaria affair exposed a yawning gap. On one side is the Ethical Code of the IDF, the “Spirit of the IDF” document, and statements of senior officers about the necessity of sticking to it. On the other were the remarks made by some in the political class. Instead of backing the military establishment as it conducted first the investigation and then the trial, many politicians opposed the army’s actions. Such opposition had the consequence of leaving the military establishment defenseless and without support in the face of public and media pressure.

If the army receives no support from the political echelon on moral and legal matters, its actions are subsequently delegitimized. The political echelon must ensure that the legal actions conducted by the military according to the governments’ guidance receive the appropriate political support. The army, for its part, must realize that if it is to act within the legal framework and according to its moral code, it must invest a great deal of effort in education and inculcating the spirit of the Israeli army — even in the face of public opposition.

The main problem lies in societal perspectives surrounding Azaria’s actions. The tragic root of the affair is linked to the fact that large segments of the public, backed by a portion of the political establishment, openly reject basic principles of the rule of law and of a society that respects human rights. IDI’s Peace Index poll, conducted in October of 2015 – just six months before the Azaria affair took place – found that 53% of Israeli Jews supported the killing of a terrorist even after he had been subdued. More and more frequent are public figures, from Knesset members to government ministers to popular singers, calling for changing the rules of engagement to allow the killing of terrorists, regardless of whether they constitute a clear and present danger.

This represents not only a moral failure, but also a perverted view of the meaning of justice. If a majority of the public believes that it is permissible and even right for a soldier to kill a terrorist without trial, even after the terrorist has been subdued and is no longer a threat, the underpinnings of the entire legal system begin to crumble.

Instead of being disturbed by this state of affairs, some of our leaders share this point of view; they certainly do not oppose it, at least publicly. And it is this that should truly worry us; not the views of Israeli soldiers or even the majority of the public who support killing terrorists once they have been subdued. No, the real concern is our own leadership and its betrayal of fundamental democratic values.

Terrorism is a hard thing to deal with, and war is a dirty business. But there are red lines, and a country’s civilian and military leaders have a duty to warn against crossing those lines and state, clearly and unequivocally, that imposing appropriate punishments is the court’s duty. Soldiers are given weapons, and the power to kill, for the sole purpose of protecting their own lives, the lives of their fellow soldiers, and the State of Israel. If we cannot even agree upon this democratic value, what can we agree on?

Professor Cohen is the director of the Center for Security and Democracy at the Israel Democracy Institute and a lecturer in law at Ono Academic College. Dr. Shafran-Gittleman is a researcher at the Center for Security and Democracy. Both are researchers at the Amnon Lipkin- Shahak program on National Security and Democracy at The Israel Democracy Institute.

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