Killing of Palestinian attacker lays bare Israeli rift over army code of conduct

Military leaders condemned the shooting of a Palestinian assailant who lay wounded on the ground, but in a recent poll, a majority of Israelis said the soldier should be freed.

Baz Ratner/Reuters
Supporters of Elor Azaria, an Israeli soldier charged with manslaughter by the Israeli military after he shot a wounded Palestinian assailant as he lay on the ground in Hebron on March 24, take part in a protest calling for his release in Tel Aviv last week.

The case of an Israeli soldier who last month fatally shot a wounded Palestinian attacker as he lay immobilized on the ground has put the army at the center of a swirling national debate about the ethics of military conduct.

A groundswell of popular support for the soldier, even as top defense officials have condemned his act, has exposed a clash of values between the military's declared code of conduct and a grim public mood after more than half a year of surging violence.

Since October, Palestinians have killed 28 Israelis and two US citizens in a steady stream of stabbings, vehicular attacks, and shootings. Israeli forces have killed at least 190 Palestinians, many of them assailants, others in street clashes with security forces.

The shooting last month, in the West Bank city of Hebron, was the latest of several incidents described by rights groups as unlawful killings by Israeli forces, when wounded Palestinian assailants were disabled and could have been arrested.

Israel has rebuffed foreign criticism of such killings, saying it was using appropriate force against attackers. But the circumstances of
the Hebron shooting, documented on video, left little room for doubt about the sequence of events.

On the morning of March 24, Sgt. Elor Azaria, an army medic, arrived at the scene of a stabbing in which two Palestinians had lightly wounded a soldier. One of the attackers was dead and the other lay on his back, seriously wounded. Sgt. Azaria killed him with a shot to the head at close range.

The shooting was caught on video by B'tselem, an Israeli human rights group, and the footage was circulated widely on the Internet. The sergeant has been court-martialed, charged with manslaughter.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu initially condemned the shooting, saying it did "not represent the values of the Israel Defense Forces" and suggesting that Azaria had violated the military's rules of engagement.

Defense Minister Moshe Ya'alon called the incident "very serious and absolutely contrary to the values of the IDF and its battle ethics."

But the statements were met by a backlash of popular support for the soldier, amplified by social media and calls by some rightist cabinet ministers to avoid hasty judgment of the sergeant. He has maintained that he suspected that the wounded Palestinian was wearing an explosive belt under his jacket, though some soldiers at the scene reported in military debriefings that the shooter said the assailant "deserved to die."

'Rush to convict'

With army service compulsory in Israel, many backers of the soldier see his court-martial as a betrayal of support that ought to be given to sons and brothers risking their lives on the front line of the conflict with the Palestinians.

"We sent them to protect us," Education Minister Naftali Bennett, leader of the far-right Jewish Home party, said in a television interview. "He is defending the state of Israel on the battlefield…. We are in an existential war against brutal Palestinian terror."

Mr. Ya'alon and the army's chief of staff, Lt. Gen. Gadi Eisenkot – who in a recent letter to troops warned against excessive use of force and promised to prosecute violators – have drawn criticism from Mr. Bennett and other rightist ministers for what they have called a rush to convict the soldier.

An Israel Radio poll released on Friday showed that nearly two-thirds of those questioned favored freeing Azaria and closing the case against him.

Sensing the public mood and feeling the pressure from the right flank of his government, Netanyahu has backtracked from his initial criticism of the shooting. He took the unusual step of calling the soldier's father to assure him that his son would be fairly treated, and last week he expressed confidence that the court-martial proceedings would take into account "all the circumstances" of the shooting.

"Our soldiers are not murderers," Netanyahu said. "They act against murderers, and I hope a way will be found to balance between the act and the general context of the event."

Politics percolates into military

Yehuda Ben Meir, an expert on public opinion at the Institute for National Security Studies in Tel Aviv, says the public mood is conflicted, caught between the universal respect for the military and a sense of sympathy for the soldier and his family.

"There is cognitive dissonance," he says. "On the one hand being in favor of the soldier is like mom and apple pie, people say he was caught in a bad situation, you have to try and understand him. But after the chief of staff and minister of defense stuck to their guns, people are not ready to go against the IDF."

A demonstration this month in support of the soldier in Tel Aviv's Rabin Square was sparsely attended, and two prominent singers slated to perform backed out, saying they did not want to be perceived as confronting the military.

Asa Kasher, a philosophy professor at Tel Aviv University who was the lead writer of the army's code of conduct, says the shooting and the debate it has set off reflected a percolation of politics into the military.

"Young soldiers have opinions they bring from home," Kasher says. "The army is a professional body, with orders and rules of engagement designed to restrain the natural tendency to act according to personal views. When one shot by one soldier turns into a political issue, it strengthens the natural tendency of soldiers to act according to their opinions and not follow regulations. This is very dangerous."

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