Former defense minister Moshe Ya’alon on Tuesday rejected the rebuke he received from judges presiding over the trial of IDF soldier Elor Azaria, who said Ya’alon 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 Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and were considered to be in the interest of national security.
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 has been criticized in the past for condemning Azaria’s actions before the incident had been properly investigated. And in their sentencing, judges noted Tuesday that Ya’alon, as well as IDF Chief of Staff Gadi Eisenkot, should have waited before publicly denouncing Azaria’s actions.
Ya’alon, however, insisted this was a luxury security chiefs did not have at the time.
“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.
“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.”
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.”