The head of the army’s Southern Command on Tuesday defended the guilty verdict handed down to Sgt. Elor Azaria last week for shooting dead an incapacitated Palestinian attacker, making him one of the first senior officers to publicly comment on the contentious case.
“Elor Azaria committed a crime, as determined by the court. The IDF cannot give up on its values, otherwise it will lose its morality,” Maj. Gen. Eyal Zamir said in a speech at the Haifa Leadership Conference.
“As officers, we cannot shy away from making clear moral statements,” he said.
In March, Abdel Fattah al-Sharif and Ramzi Aziz al-Qasrawi attacked two IDF soldiers stationed in Hebron. One soldier was wounded; the second opened fire at the attackers, killing al-Qasrawi and severely wounding Sharif.
More than 10 minutes after the attack, Azaria cocked his weapon and shot Sharif in the head, killing him. When asked why, Azaria told his commander that the Palestinian assailant “deserved to die.”
Last Wednesday, Azaria was convicted of manslaughter by a military court, prompting an outcry in some circles and threats against the convicting judges and IDF Chief of Staff Gadi Eisenkot.
“A soldier swears allegiance to the state and its institutions. That pledge doesn’t include allegiance to social media,” Zamir said, referring to the increasing dominance of sites such as Facebook and Twitter in public discourse.
Col. Nimrod Aloni, head of the Paratroopers Brigade, told the Haifa conference he’d spoken with “hundreds of soldiers” about the moral dimensions of the incident and “what we want is a Jewish army, so that the conversation isn’t just about whether or not the soldier acted according to the law.”
Some of the soldiers he spoke to expressed “difficult opinions” that differed from his own, Aloni said.
“Not everyone has to agree, but if you want to be part of the army that defends Israel, you need to accept its values,” he declared.
Also on Tuesday, another high-ranking defense official, Maj. Gen. (res.) Yitzhak Brick, called on soldiers to stay true to their moral compass and not give in to “hate or the desire for revenge,” without explicitly referring to the so-called “Hebron shooting” case.
Following a terror attack in Jerusalem on Sunday, in which soldiers were said to have hesitated to shoot the perpetrator, supporters of Azaria claimed that fear of prosecution was to blame. (Eyewitness testimony, as well as video footage, later showed that allegations of a delayed response were exaggerated, if not outright false.)
“There is no hesitation among our soldiers today,” Zamir told the Haifa audience.
In his speech, the Southern Command chief also responded to accusations by Azaria’s supporters that the military’s top brass has “abandoned” its soldiers.
“Since the Azaria incident, 39 Palestinians have been killed in the West Bank, and in the Southern Command, Palestinians have been killed on the security fence. In all of those cases, the soldiers received complete backup, because they acted according to the rules of engagement,” Zamir said.
Brick, an ombudsman for the military, refrained from mentioning the Hebron case directly in a letter he sent out to IDF soldiers, but the context of his message was clear: Don’t do what Azaria did.
Referring to his own experiences in the Yom Kippur War, he wrote: “After bloody battles, in which many of our comrades fell, we stood across from enemies who had raised their hands and gotten down on their knees. We diligently upheld [the value of] purity of arms, a central element of our power, which distinguishes us from our enemies.
“The IDF’s victories on the battlefield are based, first and foremost, on morality and ethics upon which IDF soldiers and commanders operate,” Brick said.