Israel stands before a “yawning abyss” with the IDF soldier’s trial for manslaughter in the killing of a disarmed Palestinian attacker in March, President Reuven Rivlin said Sunday.
Sgt. Elor Azaria stands charged with manslaughter after he was filmed shooting Palestinian assailant Abdel Fattah al-Sharif in the head on March 24, nearly 15 minutes after Sharif was shot by soldiers during an attempt to stab them in the West Bank city of Hebron.
“The trial can place us before a yawning abyss and not merely a slippery slope,” Rivlin said in a video posted on his Twitter account on Sunday. “My grandchildren, who are soldiers in the army, ask me ‘Grandpa, who do we need to listen to? Our officers or the voice of the masses?’ We have an excellent army, we have the best officers, we have a chief of staff who is unlike any other, and we must listen to them and accept their decisions because these are the rules of the game.”
Rivlin’s comments on the case came hours after Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Sunday vehemently denied that he had intended to draw a comparison between the plight of Azaria and soldiers missing or killed in action.
The prime minister’s clarification came a day after he told Channel 2 in an interview that he had no regrets over a supportive phone call he made earlier this year to the father of Azaria, accused of killing an incapacitated Palestinian stabber in Hebron.
Netanyahu, whose conversation with Charlie Azaria in late March was criticized by some as inappropriate — as judges had yet to rule in the case of his son — said in the interview: “I’ve called many distressed parents whose children fell [in combat] or were declared MIA…and here [too] we have a matter of great distress for Israelis, I want you to understand that.”
The comments drew criticism for apparently putting Azaria and missing or fallen soldiers in the same category.
In a Facebook post early Sunday morning, Netanyahu wrote: “I am sorry if what I said was not understood correctly.
“In no way did I want to compare the suffering of bereaved families [of IDF soldiers], a suffering which I know well, to the situation of other parents who are in distress,” the prime minister added, in an apparent reference to his brother Yoni Netanyahu, who was killed during the 1976 IDF special forces raid to rescue kidnapped Israelis held by terrorists in Entebbe airport, Uganda.
“There is no comparison and there cannot be any comparison,” he said.
Netanyahu’s bureau also issued a statement sharply criticizing any who saw the prime minister’s remarks to Channel 2 as a comparison.
“Prime Minister Netanyahu didn’t compare between the soldier Elor Azaria and fallen soldiers. This is a low, perverse and deceitful attempt to present his words as such. Prime Minister Netanyahu respects the families of fallen soldiers and the families of missing soldiers and is very aware of their impossible pain.”
One of the more strident criticisms in the wake of the interview came from former prime minister Ehud Barak, who was Netanyahu’s commander in the IDF’s elite Sayeret Matkal commando unit decades before he served under him as defense minister.
“Whoever compares Elor Azaria to the heroes of Israel and missing fighters is a startled and confused person who has lost his sense of justice, or, God forbid, has decided to try and smash the values of the IDF,” Barak tweeted Saturday. “This cannot be allowed. A serving prime minister who doesn’t take back this wanton folly will forever carry with him the stigma of one who has forgotten what it means to be a fighter in the IDF.”
Barak, who quit politics in 2012, has recently voiced other criticism of Netanyahu, saying that the prime minister’s “reckless” relationship with US President Barak Obama resulted in a diminished defense aid package deal, signed two weeks ago, and valued at $38 billion over the next decade.
Azaria testified in July that he feared al-Sharif’s body was fitted with a bomb. Prosecutors have disputed this.
On Sunday his fellow platoon member — who was injured in the stabbing attack — told the Jaffa Military Court that as he lay on a stretcher after the attack he heard people shouting that the stabber could also be armed with a bomb.
“When they put me in the ambulance I started to hear cries that the terrorist is still alive, that apparently he has a bomb, and I understood that the incident was not over yet,” said the soldier, whose name was not cleared for media publication.
The killing made international headlines and the subsequent trial has sparked much controversy and inflamed political tensions in Israel, with far-right supporters and some politicians accusing the defense establishment of abandoning one of its own.