A Wrongful Act a Shameful Verdict: Netanyahu, Azaria and Rule of Law
Last month, Elor Azaria, killer of a subdued and wounded terrorist, was convicted for manslaughter by Israeli courts and sentences to 18 months in prison. The conviction followed a long, charged and public narrative, in which the Israeli public’s commitment to its soldiers came into conflict with the army’s stated values and obligation to act in accordance to professional standards and international law. At its conclusion, the sentence handed down was remarkably low, with Israeli prime minister Benyamin Netanyahu supporting the pardoning of Azaria for his crimes, at various times.
Throughout the knife intifada of last year, in which waves of terrorists attempted acts of violence against Israeli civilians, soldiers and security personnel, as well as foreign tourists, I consistently defended the Israeli government’s conduct in dispatching such attackers under simple reasoning: First, despite the claims of ‘extrajudicial killings’, the suppression of terrorists in the midst of carrying out an attack on civilians or security forces with a deadly weapon is clearly self-defense, and consistent with policies police and militaries employ in other democratic countries. Second, it seemed clear that in a political climate where these stabbings were happening frequently, a terrorist who picked up a weapon with the intention of killing a civilian knew that he was likely forfeiting his life. In this sense, we might compare his calculus to that of a soldier in war. Though the terrorist performs one type of action and the soldier that of an entirely different nature, both have committed themselves to violence and by extension, implicitly accept the consequences of that violence while in the environment in which they aim to carry it out. Thus, a soldier in war, or a terrorist who has picked up a weapon to kill can have no complaints if he is killed in the midst of executing his intention. In the very act of summiting himself to arms each has, in a sense, forfeited his life.
The actions of Azaria however, who turned his weapon on a terrorist who had already been neutralized, fall decisively outside this category of conduct. The medic acted in blatant defiance of rules of engagement, meeting no criteria for self-defense, namely that the adversary in question be a deadly threat at the moment he was killed. Furthermore, reviewing the events surrounding the termination of the prisoner’s life and attempting to construct a feasible narrative, it is extremely unlikely that Azaria perceived a threat to his own life and that this was the motive of his actions. (why indeed would someone who perceived a threat approach the neutralized suspect in a clam, measured stride shooting at point blank range?).
Considering also, that Azaria, by all accounts, went a considerable distance specifically to kill the neutralized terrorist, after allegedly being roused by local residents, the excuse of self- defense can be easily deconstructed. Rather, by all empirical indications, Azaria’s act was driven by a predetermined desire to kill for the sake of extracting revenge. At the moment he acted, shooting a, subdued terrorist in the presence of personnel who were charged with securing the scene including his own officer, he disregarded rules of engagement which mark armies as professional and brought the IDF’s reputation into disrepute.
Many Israelis have expressed sympathy for Azaria
Many Israelis have expressed sympathy for Azaria and not without reason. As a young man conscripted into the army, he represents the citizen-soldier ideal that has defined the nation since pre-state times. Cast into mandatory military service just after high school, can we really question his judgement error and hold him to the standards of a truly professional soldier?
However, Israel has attempted to frame itself as both a democratic society where rule of law holds sway and a model of humane conduct among nations, preserving life whenever possible. Thus, when this value is blatantly and needlessly violated by a representative of the nation’s armed forces, the crime demands accountability, and a fitting punishment. The actor must serve a punishment fitting the violation, and the must system guard itself against future violators by setting a clear moral precedent. What then, are the consequences of the extremely lax punishment Azaria incurred and the government’s repeated avocation of his pardon? How might it effect the conduct and reputation of the IDF in the future?
First, in a fractious environment in which Israeli soldiers and Palestinian civilians come face to face on a daily basis, a pardon would set a precedent whereby future professional conduct and rule of law can increasingly be disregarded. By disregarding ethical and professional standards, soldiers potentially gain the latitude to dispatch their own definition of justice, then expect or demand lax sentences or even pardon. It behavior like this becomes a trend, the professionalism of the army, which states ‘purity of arms’ as one of its core values, may be deeply if not irreversibly compromised.
A lax sentence or a pardon damages Israel’s legitimacy as an honest broker
Second, a lax sentence or a pardon damages Israel’s legitimacy as an honest broker, already deemed dubious in the eyes of the international community. If the stated rule only applies when convenient, then how can Israel claim to be a humane army acting in the mandate of international law? Its integrity would be damaged and deservedly so in the context of excusing such behavior.
What emerges as a result of this woefully lax sentence, is the prevalence of a sort of religious tribalism, whereby any action by ‘our kind’ against ‘the other’ is somehow justified, regardless of its adherence to the law. In attempting to safeguard its legitimacy and the moral integrity which it claims, Israel should have demanded full accountability for the wrongful killing committed on that day, rather than excuse it on as the grounds that Azaria was inexperienced or worse, that it was committed ‘by one of our own’. Only then may it reasonably be able to defend itself when soldiers and security personnel justifiably dispatched their weapons against the enemy in the line of duty.