Israeli society was rocked by a military court's decision yesterday to convict IDF soldier Elor Azaria of manslaughter after he shot an incapacitated Palestinian terrorist in the head. Several parliament ministers are now calling for Azaria to receive clemency, a move supported by over 60% of the Israeli public.
As others have pointed out, Azaria's actions are reprehensible. He shot to death a Palestinian who incontrovertibly posed no threat. This excessive use of force is a violation of Israel's rules of engagement, those of any liberal democracy, and Article 12 of the First Geneva Convention. Support for a soldier who violated the chain of command and Israel's rules of engagement is an affront to hundreds of thousands of IDF soldiers who, in much tougher conditions, placed the good of the state over their own personal emotion. Azaria's actions impugn their professionalism, dignity, and commitment to the security of the State of Israel.
At the same time, it is crucial to understand what motivates this support. Israelis more than most other people understand the depth and complexity of moral dilemmas involved in fighting terrorism and insurgency. Making sense of their support for Azaria does not justify it, but rather contextualizes it for non-Israeli audiences who may not be able to grasp the context in which Israelis are giving their support.
First, Israelis feel that the military bureaucracy places blame on low-level soldiers for strategic mistakes made at the higher levels. In fact, 60% of Israelis think Israel's Chief of Staff, Gadi Eisenkot, and the top IDF brass influenced the court's verdict. While Azaria bears responsibility for his actions, there are institutional and systemic factors that placed someone with his lack of discipline in a situation like that which exists in Hebron. Furthermore, the fact that the multiple videos of the incident were publicized by the Israeli Human Rights group B'Tselem placed additional pressure on the IDF bureaucracy to make an example. Azaria is guilty, but he is not the only guilty party.
Second, Israelis point to the fact that the victim of the shooting was a terrorist. Terrorists are understood in different terms in Israel than they are in the US. In Israel, they are not foreign evildoers who sneak into the country and kill a few people every couple years. Rather, terrorists are responsible for the pervasive sense of fear and worry that Israelis internalize every day. They are the reason Israelis think twice before riding public busses, sitting near the front of a restaurant, waiting at an un-fortified bus stop, or letting their kids go to a concert, club, or downtown. Terrorism is not a theoretical construct of political and legal discussions in Israel. It is visceral and scary, and has a deeply harmful effect on the Israeli national psyche. Israelis are hard pressed to understand how any rational human could want them to feel this visceral fear every day. Understanding terrorists as monsters or fundamentally un-human is one way to make some sense of the phenomenon. The 51% of Americans who supported the not-guilty verdict for George Zimmerman after he shot Trayvon Martin reasoned along similar lines, though with much less justification than Israelis have. Shooting a terrorist - one responsible for fear and anxiety through his violent actions and threats that give Israelis no moment of peace - is justified in terms of the emotional havoc terrorism wreaks on Israelis. One less terrorist is one step closer to psychological peace.
Finally, Israelis' response to Azaria's conviction is shaped an erosion of faith in human rights norms. Israelis are proud of the IDF's respect for human rights, but the past decade has seen human rights norms weaponized against Israel and its actions in Gaza and the West Bank. In the wake of the American Abu Ghraib prison scandal, one of the major American concerns was that it degraded US credibility as a proponent of human rights. Israel, on the other hand, is condemned by the international community time and time again despite its unprecedented efforts to protect human rights in combat. It has been given little credibility to begin with despite serious efforts to act in humane ways during war. The overall effect of this condemnation - some justified and some not - is the erosion of the Israeli public's faith in international liberal human rights norms. This erosion - combined with the rise of illiberal parties in Israel's Knesset - shapes perceptions that the rights of combatants under international law are irrelevant because Israel will be condemned whether or not it respects them.
These justifications, of course, fail to speak to the overwhelming persuasiveness of arguments in favor of a chain of command, rules of engagement, and respect for wounded combatants. They also fail to speak the myriad of ways in which Israel's government perpetuates a systematic lack of respect for basic Palestinian human rights. Nonetheless, they speak to the need for all concerned with human rights to take seriously the complexity of the unique dilemmas Israelis face. They also suggest that deeper engagement with Israel's public, rather than disengagement and boycotts, are a productive way to restore strong faith in the fundamental values that are part and parcel of both liberal democracies and Israel's founding principles.