The Hebron Shooter is not Israel’s Poster Child

The public support for a soldier being prosecuted for shooting a disarmed terrorist indicates how far Israel's security mantra is eroding basic humanitarian and democratic norms.

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In this op-ed IDI's Amichay Ayalon and Idit Shafran-Gittleman argue that the challenge of combatting terrorism requires security concerns to be weighed against the values of a free society. The prevailing attitude among supporters of Hebron shooter Elor Azaria of allowing the security mantra to trump any other concerns may lead to short-term military success, but will be a moral loss for Israel, both on the home front and in the international sphere. This op-ed originally appeared in Haaretz.

The high-profile trial of Sergeant Elor Azaria, accused of killing a wounded and disarmed terrorist while on duty in Hebron, has sparked an unprecedented national debate. One of Israel's top newspapers (Makor Rishon) as well as a national television channel (Channel 10) even went so far as to choose Azaria as the country's "Man of the Year." Politicians, generals and the public at large have all weighed in on the legal question at hand: Is it proper to prosecute a soldier for shooting a disarmed terrorist who no longer poses a threat? 

Although the public spotlight has focused on one soldier, this is not really the story of Azaria. Rather, it is the story of Israeli society and its attempts to grapple with the longstanding tradition of "purity of arms"—a concept that permeates the IDF's code of ethics and delineates the boundaries between permissible and impermissible use of force.

Among other things, the Azaria story exposes the way in which Israel's very real “security needs” can be turned into a mantra that justifies just about anything in the name of security. This development becomes more likely when no serious attempt is made to understand and define what those security needs are, or how they measure up against Israel's values as a free society. In a climate where "security" is sacred, "democracy" must retreat into a shell and stay quiet. We can see similar effects of this phenomenon when it comes to discussion of the merits of home demolitions and administrative detention. 

The depth of the public’s outrage over the charges leveled against Azaria—"our boy", as many have termed him—is a perfect example of the blinding impact of the "security" mantra in the age of social media. 

This dynamic is threatening to strip Israeli society of its core values, allowing injustices fueled by fear to be perpetrated in disregard of our longstanding commitments to basic humanitarian norms.

The fight against terrorism is not like a traditional war, which has a clear beginning and end. Combating terrorism is an ongoing war of attrition. Counterterrorism attests both our ability to meet a tangible physical threat and the fortitude of our society. Above all, the struggle against terrorism is also a society’s struggle to defuse threats without sacrificing its most cherished values. 

Moreover, counterterrorism takes place not only on the military front, but on the civilian and international fronts as well. Indeed, in modern warfare the civilian and international arenas often become the central theaters of conflict. For this reason, even when a dead terrorist might be considered an accomplishment on the battlefield, a dead captive constitutes a failure on the home front and a setback for Israel's struggle for legitimacy on the international stage.

The advent of social media has placed increasing pressure on those arguing on behalf of a balanced approach. For example, a video recently posted to the Srugim website portrays researchers from the Hartman Institute as undermining national security simply by teaching their students to do their best to avoid inflicting harm on enemy civilians, even if this means foregoing certain military missions or endangering the lives of Israeli soldiers. 

The video, which reflects the new popular consensus, harshly criticizes the researchers for statements that accurately reflect the IDF's current guidelines under its moral code of conduct.

To be sure, it is naïve to deny the context for all this, including the impossible situation that we have created in Hebron and into which we thrust our eighteen-year-old men and women. This is a complex reality in which the distinction between good and evil and between the permissible and forbidden is becoming increasingly blurred. 

Of course, Azaria is not to blame for this reality. But the campaign that has been conducted throughout his trial exposes of the broad moral erosion it is facilitating. The fact that Maj. Gen. (Res.) Uzi Dayan, a former candidate for the position of Chief of Staff brought on as a witness for the defense, states that shooting the injured terrorist was the right thing to do even if the defendant did not feel his life was in danger, is an indication of how far we have fallen.

The ease with which the national security catch phrase is bandied about, while subjugating Israel's most fundamental moral principles, is weakening our famed ability to withstand the scourge of terrorism and get on with our lives. By surrendering our values, the proponents of the "security" mantra will paradoxically end up handing the terrorists the very victory we all seek to deny them.

Even as we hear the populist calls to “let the boy go,” we in Israel ought to look in the mirror and ask ourselves whether this really is our ideal poster child.

Admiral (Res.) Amichay (Ami) Ayalon a former commander of the Israeli Navy and head of the Israeli domestic security agency, is director of the Amnon Lipkin-Shahak Program on National Security and Democracy at the Israel Democracy Institute.

Idit Shafran Gittleman is a researcher in the Center for Security and Democracy at the Israel Democracy Institute.

This op-ed originally appeared in Haaretz.