Army chief: Azaria case tainted by ‘manipulations and lies’
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Army chief: Azaria case tainted by ‘manipulations and lies’

Gadi Eisenkot says discourse around manslaughter trial ‘harmed the IDF, the soldier himself, and the public’

IDF Chief of Staff Gadi Eisenkot attends a Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee meeting at the Knesset on February 22, 2017. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90 )
IDF Chief of Staff Gadi Eisenkot attends a Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee meeting at the Knesset on February 22, 2017. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90 )

IDF chief of staff Gadi Eisenkot on Wednesday accused politicians of perpetuating “manipulations and lies” in the case of Israeli soldier Elor Azaria, who was sentenced on Tuesday to 18 months in prison for killing an incapacitated Palestinian stabber in the West Bank city of Hebron.

In the sentence, the judges centered much of their criticism on the army for not taking better care of Azaria’s family, and on the defense minister and army spokesperson for interfering in the legal proceedings by making statements to the press soon after the incident, before the court reached its decision. The rebuke was largely aimed at former defense minister Moshe Ya’alon and the IDF spokesperson.

After the incident in March 2016, Eisenkot was seen as taking a tough line on the soldier as a flurry of right-wing politicians rushed to Azaria’s defense. Politicians, including Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Zionist Union MK Shelly Yachimovich, have called for Azaria to be pardoned.

Speaking to the Knesset’s Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, Eisenkot rapped politicians who waded into the issue.

“The discourse around Elor Azaria has also harmed the IDF, the soldier himself, and the public,” Eisenkot said. “There were lies throughout the process about the army. I am sorry about the discourse on this matter; the entire incident was accompanied by manipulations and lies.”

Ahead of the conviction last month, Eisenkot — without mentioning Azaria by name — apparently rejected claims by the soldier’s supporters that he should be seen as a child whom the nation is committed to protecting.

“An 18-year-old man serving in the army is not ‘everyone’s child,’” Eisenkot said. “He is a fighter, a soldier, who must dedicate his life to carry out the tasks we give him. We cannot be confused about this.”

Judges on Tuesday sentenced Azaria to 18 months in prison for the killing of a disarmed, incapacitated Palestinian assailant in March 2016. Azaria was convicted in January in the shooting death of Abdel Fattah al-Sharif, who was lying on the ground wounded and disarmed after stabbing a soldier in the West Bank city of Hebron. Azaria, a combat medic, was filmed shooting Sharif in the head.

Ya’alon on Tuesday rejected the reprimand he received from judges who said he had interfered with the manslaughter case by making public statements about the issue before the trial was completed.

Ya’alon, who headed the Defense Ministry at the time of the shooting, said all his remarks at the time were made with the explicit approval of Netanyahu and were considered to be in the interest of national security.

“It was clear to the prime minister, to the IDF chief of staff and to me, following the initial investigation, that this incident was out of the ordinary,” he said at a conference of the Institute of Certified Public Accountants in Israel.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Defense Minister Moshe Ya'alon and IDF Chief of Staff Gadi Eisenkot speak at a joint press conference on the recent wave of terror, at the Prime Minister's Office in Jerusalem on October 8, 2015. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, then-Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon and IDF Chief of Staff Gadi Eisenkot speak at a joint press conference on a wave of terror, at the Prime Minister’s Office in Jerusalem on October 8, 2015. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

“Therefore in a joint decision we made a statement together a few hours after the incident in order to prevent a conflagration on the ground [following broadcast of a video of the killing], to prevent anyone from using the incident as proof of Palestinian blood libels…as if Israel and IDF soldiers carry out extra-judicial executions,” he said.

Ya’alon characterized the decision as one taken in the interest of national security.

He added that he was “forced” to comment on the case yet again when right-wing activists and lawmakers — including Avigdor Liberman, the current defense minister — “assaulted” law enforcement over its treatment of Azaria.

“I warned that IDF rules of engagement would be determined by the chief of staff and not by rabble-rousers,” he said. “This, too, I did out of my responsibility as defense minister.”

IDF soldier Elor Azaria, right, convicted on the manslaughter of a wounded Palestinian, is embraced by his mother Oshra at the start of his sentencing hearing in a military court in Tel Aviv, February 21, 2017. (AFP/POOL/ JIM HOLLANDER)
IDF soldier Elor Azaria, right, convicted on the manslaughter of a wounded Palestinian, is embraced by his mother Oshra at the start of his sentencing hearing in a military court in Tel Aviv, February 21, 2017. (AFP/POOL/ JIM HOLLANDER)

Ya’alon spoke of his need to defend Eisenkot after the shooting, as the IDF chief came under a barrage of criticism as well as calls for his resignation by those on the right who accused him of abandoning Azaria.

“Who will protect the IDF chief of staff, if not the defense minister,” Ya’alon said.

A former chief of staff himself and a member of the elite Sayeret Matkal unit, Ya’alon derided the “heroes of Big Brother, Facebook and Twitter” who “tried to give him lessons on fighting terror,” in a clear reference to Sharon Gal, a former MK and current participant on the Big Brother reality show, who was at the forefront of Azaria’s defense.

Ya’alon praised the court’s ruling on Azaria, saying it had “taken into consideration the soldier and the circumstances of the incident.”

While he vowed that Israel would “continue to defeat our bitter enemies with determination and courage,” it would “not do so with abandon, not while behaving like militias.”

Ya’alon advised the Azaria family to move away from “special interest parties” on the right “who have used them as pawns,” and said he believed a request for a pardon “will not fall on deaf ears.”

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