Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked on Friday condemned online threats of violence against the judges who convicted an IDF soldier for manslaughter this week, as former IDF chief of staff Benny Gantz backed his embattled successor on the case, and President Reuven Rivlin called the IDF’s commanders inspirational and a source of national pride.
“One can criticize the ruling, but under no circumstances should one incite against the judges personally,” Shaked said in a statement. “A strong, independent legal system is the cornerstone of a healthy state.”
The verdict drew a flurry of threatening messages against military judge Maya Heller, who headed the tribunal that convicted Sgt. Elor Azaria on Wednesday. Security around Heller and the other two judges on the panel, Lt. Col. Carmel Wahabi and Lt. Col. Yaron Sitbo, was tightened on Wednesday, amid reports of thousands of threats of violence against them on social media and elsewhere.
The justice minister also maintained that a leaked IDF report on the lethal shooting of an incapacitated Palestinian stabber in Hebron last March — for which Azaria was convicted — the meddling by politicians, and the decision to go to trial rather than reaching a plea bargain all tainted the legal process.
“I wish to be clear: Elor deserved a cleaner [legal] process,” she said.
Since the conviction on Wednesday, thousands of threats have also targeted IDF Chief of Staff Gadi Eisenkot, a fierce critic of Azaria’s conduct.
In a letter to Eisenkot on Friday, former IDF chief Gantz hailed Eisenkot’s “correct” response to the affair.
Gantz also praised Eisenkot personally, saying, “You have not forsaken the values in which we were raised” which “are the solid foundations of our professional image as IDF soldiers” as well as the IDF’s “moral image.”
President Reuven Rivlin — paying a condolence call to the family of an IDF officer, Hagai Ben Ari, who died this week of injuries sustained in Operation Cast Lead against Hamas in 2014 — declared that the IDF “is not just our army, it is all of us,” and he asserted that it would remain above partisan political argument.
Without invoking the Azaria case and the criticisms of the IDF it has prompted in some quarters, the president added: “The commanders leading our army are a source of inspiration and pride, and we will continue to protect them as they protect us.”
On Thursday, IDF spokesperson Moti Almoz joined the chorus of denunciations against protesters threatening violence in the aftermath of the Azaria verdict, calling for “vigorous and blunt condemnation” against the phenomenon on Thursday.
Responding to reports of calls for violence against the judges and Eisenkot, Almoz said in a statement that the army condemns “any inciting statement or action of any type toward judges in military courts, the military justice system and against any soldier, whoever they are.”
“The IDF is the people’s army and it should remain outside political arguments. Incitement or hurtful statements directed toward those serving in the IDF cannot be allowed and they warrant vigorous and blunt condemnation,” the army spokesperson said.
Azaria, who was convicted of manslaughter Wednesday for killing a wounded Palestinian stabber in Hebron last year, faces a sentencing hearing next week, with many politicians calling for him to be pardoned. The case has deeply divided the country.
In the face of strong condemnation of Azaria’s actions by top military brass, including Eisenkot and then-defense minister Moshe Ya’alon, far-right supporters and some politicians had accused the defense establishment of abandoning one of its own.
According to social media tracking firm Vigo, in addition to the slogans shouted at the trial, some 2,500 posts put online as of Thursday afternoon threatened Eisenkot.
Earlier on Thursday evening, the attorney general instructed police to launch an investigation into a group of demonstrators who were captured on camera threatening Eisenkot over Azaria’s conviction.
Protesters verbally attacked Eisenkot outside the Kirya military headquarters in Tel Aviv, where Azaria’s verdict was delivered, shouting slogans such as, “Gadi watch out, Rabin is looking for a friend,” referring to former prime minister Yitzhak Rabin, who was assassinated by a right-wing extremist in 1995.
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In addition, police arrested two people on suspicion of calling for attacks against the judges. Both were released to house arrest Thursday, on condition that they stay off social media and keep away from Heller.
Judah Ari Gross and Joshua Davidovich contributed to this report.