“An 18-year-old man is not everyone’s child or a baby who has been taken captive,” IDF Chief of Staff Gadi Eisenkot said Tuesday. It was a very correct statement, a pivotal statement, in the wrong timing, on the eve of the ruling in the Elor Azaria trial.
I assume that the chief of staff wished to speak before the debate that would being on Wednesday, after the delivery of the verdict. It’s a shame he couldn’t resist the temptation.
Nonetheless, he was essentially right. Elor Azaria is not everyone’s child. Most importantly, he is not a child. If he were a child, he wouldn’t have been given a weapon capable of killing. If people his age were children, we wouldn’t be putting them on a plane that costs some $100 million or on a tank that costs millions. We wouldn’t be trusting them with our lives and we wouldn’t be expecting them to risk their lives for the country.
Azaria is of course his parents’ child, but he will be his parents’ child even when he is 45 years old. This position has nothing to do with the responsibility required from him as a soldier in the Israel Defense Forces.
In our minds, IDF soldiers have become helpless children, babies who have been taken captive. This is the result of a process that has lasted for years and reached its peak in the campaign for the release of kidnapped soldier Gilad Shalit. There were many partners in this process, starting with innocent Israelis who failed to understand the extent of the damage they were causing, to politicians who understood very well but favored their own personal benefit. Media outlets made their own contribution to this process. Not because of their fondness of the Left, not because of their fondness of the Right, but because of their addiction to kitsch.
Look how far we have fallen: As the latest military conflicts against Hamas in Gaza have proved, the Israeli society is more sensitive today to the death of soldiers in battle than it is to the death of civilians. This is a distorted, groundless prioritization—and in the long run, it’s even fatal. First of all, it hurts soldiers’ dignity. Every parent should remember what he thought about himself when he was 18 years old. Was he prepared to be treated like a child hiding behind his mother’s skirt? I don’t think so.
The circumstances in which Azaria shot a terrorist 11 minutes after he was neutralized required a Military Police investigation and a trial in a military court. Such a serious incident cannot be settled within the unit. The law does not allow it—and rightfully so.
The incident took place in the middle of the "knife intifada," which put the entire Israeli society to a difficult test. Dark impulses were unleashed. The defense attorneys built their initial line of defense on that, and the politicians dived in. The things that Avigdor Lieberman and Naftali Bennett said on the day Azaria was detained on remand bordered on incitement and permission to kill. Eisenkot and then-Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon responded with emotionally charged words of their own. Their legitimate desire to protect the military authority, the law and the fighting norms in the army, and to prevent war crimes claims in the international community, dragged them into statements that were considered as an interference in the judicial proceeding. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s attempt to be in both places left an even worse taste.
This commotion likely won Azaria many new Facebook friends, but I doubt it gave him the legal defense he deserved.
With all the drama, the importance of this trial should not be overestimated. The laws, the values and the norms the IDF is based on are not determined in one soldier’s trial. The soldiers will continue to do what they are tasked with on the ground, based on the training they receive from their commanders, the briefings they receive and their own feelings. The protestors’ signs outside the General Staff headquarters and the social media chatter are one thing, while the reality on the ground is another thing.