Sgt. Azaria and the Rule of Law

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Last week, Sgt. Elor Azaria, 20, of the Israel Defense Forces was convicted on a charge of manslaughter for killing a prone Palestinian man who had earlier lunged at Israeli troops with a knife. A three-judge military panel rejected Azaria’s defense that he acted out of fear when he shot Abdul Fatah al-Sharif, 21, in the head while he was lying immobile on a road in Hebron last March. The court ruled that Azaria, an army medic, was motivated by a desire for revenge. Sentencing is scheduled for Jan. 15. Azaria’s defense team said it will appeal the conviction.

There are legitimate questions regarding the wisdom of trying an IDF soldier in court. But regardless of one’s view on that issue, or on the outcome of the trial and its appeal, deference to the legal process and respect for the rule of law is an important abiding principle of any democratic society.

It is for that reason that we find the politicization of the Azaria case to be so disconcerting. Right-wing politicians from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on down are calling for Azaria to be pardoned by Israel’s president, although Netanyahu has not explained why he favors a pardon. And he is joined in criticism of the military court verdict by other government ministers, including Naftali Bennett of the Jewish Home Party and Likud Party minister Miri Regev. The left has been split, with former Labor Party leader Shelly Yachimovich calling for a pardon and others criticizing the charge of manslaughter, saying that Azaria should have been tried for murder.

The Azaria case has attracted so much attention because it touched Israel’s third rail: the army.

In sympathy for the army and its soldiers, many felt that a soldier who was protecting his country while in uniform should not be tried for killing a Palestinian attacker. Indeed, that appears to be the view of many of the 250 people who turned out on Jan. 4 to protest the verdict. Some clashed with police. And part of the demonstration got ugly, when some protesters chanted death threats to IDF Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Gadi Eizenkot: “Gadi, Gadi, watch out: Rabin is looking for a friend,” they said, referring to Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, who was assassinated in 1995. The same day, a 22-year-old woman allegedly wrote on Facebook, referring to Col. Maya Heller, the head of the judges’ panel: “Take a grenade and blow up the judge and scatter all of her parts in different places, let the dogs eat her.”

These very disturbing death threats may well only involve extreme members of the protest movement, but they show how volatile the situation is. Given the circumstances, it is the responsibility of Israel’s leaders to calm the situation and to stress the merit, value and significance of a country that observes the rule of law, rather than looking for ways to evade it.

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