A decade ago, I was interviewing Eliezer Shkedi, who was the commander of the Israeli Air Force at the time, and he made the then shattering revelation that Hamas’s Kassam rocket crews in Gaza often took children along with them when they went out to fire rockets indiscriminately into Israel.
Why so? I asked. Because they knew, explained Shkedi, that the IAF wouldn’t fire on them if there was a risk that the children would be hit.
I thought about that for a second or two, and then I asked, somewhat provocatively, whether perhaps an argument could be made that the IAF had a moral obligation to open fire nonetheless — since the Israeli military’s prime obligation is to protect Israel’s citizens, and holding fire in order to safeguard children that the enemy had deliberately brought into a combat zone meant exposing Israeli innocents to fatal risk.
“That is the kind of dilemma we live with every day and I’m very pleased you asked me about it,” Shkedi replied. Of course, he explained, the IAF wouldn’t fire if the pilots knew there was a likelihood they would hit children. Instead, the air force worked endlessly to improve its accuracy — so that if, a few years ago, it wouldn’t fire when there was a child within a few meters of the Hamas rocket crew, it now had that distance down to a meter or a meter and a half. The goal, in short, was to tackle the terrorists while doing the utmost not to harm the children, even at a certain consequent risk to the terrorists’ Israeli targets. “If we know that [the terrorist] is holding his son’s hand, we do not fire,” Shkedi said then. “Even if the terrorist is in the midst of firing a Kassam, and the Kassam is aimed to kill. We do not fire.”
“I’m very proud of what we do. I think it is unprecedented,” he added. “I’m proud of our morals. I’m proud of our operational capabilities.”
Members of Israel’s security forces — primarily our 18- to 21-year-old sons and daughters — are required to grapple with moral dilemmas as acute as that one all the time, and often with an urgency, a split-second imperative for a decision, in circumstances more unexpected, and with less recourse to precedent, than the dilemma regarding kids and Hamas rocket crews so emphatically handled by our air force hierarchy. Facing the ongoing lone-wolf Palestinian terror wave, for instance, our troops must make instant decisions about drivers and pedestrians approaching them at roadblocks, people walking past them on the streets. Are they slowing down? Did they hear my shouted order to halt? What’s in their bag, what’s in their pockets, what’s in their hands? Is that a phone, a knife, a gun? Do nothing, and you may die, and other innocent Israelis may die. Do something, and an innocent Palestinian may lose his or her life, and yours will forever turn on the incident.
The Hamas and other terrorists who target Israelis are seeking to kill us. They make no secret of that; Hamas is avowedly committed to destroying Israel altogether. But that ambition also involves seeking to destabilize our society, to make daily life here fraught, angst-filled and ideally, from their point of view, ultimately untenable. And it involves corroding our society and its values, attempting to render our efforts to maintain our own morality in the face of their murderous hostility so costly as to be unsustainable.
It’s by no means clear that prime minister Golda Meir ever actually said that even if peace came, it would take a long time for us to forgive our Arab enemies for having made us kill their children, but the ostensible quotation resonates because it contains a truth: Tackling stabbers and car-rammers and rocketeers and suicide bombers poses moral as well as practical challenges for Israel and its armed forces. The struggle not only to keep this country secure, not only to keep its people safe from harm, but to do so while insistently seeking to act morally — even, ironically, as much of the international community despicably accuses us of doing the reverse — is relentless and so very complex.
Enter Elor Azaria, the IDF combat medic whose various reasons for shooting dead a disarmed and incapacitated would-be murderous Palestinian assailant last March in Hebron were carefully dissected and clinically rejected by the army military tribunal that convicted him of manslaughter on Wednesday.
Immediately pardoning Azaria, it should be obvious but apparently is not, would represent a mockery of the legal process, and of our vital, self-preserving values. It would imply a tolerance for the intolerable, corroding the open-fire orders and the entire framework that guides our troops in their work
The very fact that Azaria was tried, painstakingly tried in an unimpeachably credible Israeli court of law, represented reaffirmation of Israel’s determination to preserve its morality — its insistence on preventing our enemies, our terrorist foes, from reducing us to their cynical, murderous depths.
Convicting him, unanimously, the three judges concluded that Azaria had not acted in the throes of a split-second dilemma, had not made a wrong but understandable choice in the heat of one of those near-impossible circumstances that Israel’s security forces so often find themselves in. He had, rather, the judges determined, acted deliberately, motivated by a sense of revenge and the conviction that terrorists deserve to die. “The fact that the man sprawled on the ground was a terrorist, who had just sought to take the lives of IDF soldiers at the scene, does not in itself justify disproportionate action,” the judges ruled.
Immediately pardoning Azaria, it should be obvious but apparently is not, would represent a mockery of that legal process, and of our vital, self-preserving values. It would imply a tolerance for the intolerable, corroding the open-fire orders and the entire framework that guides our troops in their work. Azaria’s actions were an aberration; a pardon would sanitize them as a norm. A reduced sentence, if and when he were to acknowledge responsibility and remorse for his actions — as Likud MK Yehuda Glick has creditably suggested — would be very different.
Because, runs the subtext of the court’s verdict, we must not and will not allow ourselves to be dragged down to the level of those who seek to wipe us out. Because our morality is central to our legitimacy — and this has nothing to do with what the world thinks about us, and everything to do with what we insist upon.
Because, as Eliezer Shkedi made clear a decade ago, we have the wisdom and the skill to both maintain our morals and the necessary operational capabilities — indeed, they complement each other in ensuring we are able to defend ourselves.