Elor Azaria: Bad Luck Soldier Or Vigilante
Between fall 2015 and spring 2016, Israel suffered a rash of terror attacks as Palestinian Arab terrorists stabbed, shot and ran over Israelis in Jerusalem, Afula, and other parts of the country. Stress was high and people were afraid, more than usually afraid.
The Elor Azaria “affair” happened toward the end of this cycle. If he was not a vigilante, he had the bad luck to have been the fourth instance of recorded problematic behaviour toward a terrorist or terror suspect, the bad luck to have been social media publicized, the bad luck to have aroused the panic and frenzy of the political leadership. There is no excuse for our leaders to have brutally accused him of behaviour not befitting the IDF or the Jewish People before anyone had any idea what had really happened other than to know that Azaria had shot the wounded terrorist in the head. Whether or not you believe Azaria should stand trial, the opening shot should not have been fired from a public pulpit by authority figures before an investigation had even begun.
And I discovered how important this is when I did some follow-up on the three earlier instances of, what I have called here “problematic events”.
First Problematic Event
On 4 October 2015. 19 year-old Fadi Ayoun was shot and killed by police. The police were egged on to kill Ayoun by an angry crowd who saw him run from the scene of a stabbing attack on 15-year-old Moshe Malka in the Old City of Jerusalem and corralled him waiting for the police to arrive. As I wrote in an article at that time, I did not see any necessity to kill him; it appeared that he could have easily been overpowered and brought in by the police. Was anyone charged in that incident? Any hint of that possibility was not raised in the media at the time and the event just faded into the past without any fanfare.
I decided not to leave it at that and spoke on the phone today with Mickey Rosenfeld, Israeli Police Foreign Press Spokesman. First, look at this videotape and see what you think about what is happening.
Rosenfeld told me that we see less than the entire event and from one perspective only; we hear the voices that reach the video recorder loudest. What we do not hear, in this case, is the police officers telling the suspect to throw down his knife. His refusal to do so meant he was still a danger to the officers who were attempting to subdue him and take him in alive. Do you remember the video of the Arab woman who tried to stab a female soldier in Afula Central Bus Station and then refused to drop her knife when surrounded? I think this video makes it clear that we do not always understand situations from bystander videos.
In the Afula case, the woman was merely injured and not killed. But I think we should conclude that social media videos do not tell us the whole truth that is to be known about any particular event.
Second Problematic Event
On 18 October 2015, a soldier was stabbed to death and 11 people injured by gunfire in a terrorist attack in Beer Sheva Central Bus Station. The shots sent people scattering, running for cover, among them an Eritrean asylum seeker, who was mistaken for the terrorist. A guard shot him and then an angry crowd beat him to death. In this instance, some of the perpetrators of the lynch were identifiable and the police investigation file was submitted to the prosecution. The court case is proceeding, nearing the final stretch.
Third Problematic Event
It would then be five months later when the next video of a similar nature would be uploaded to the social media. On 8 March 2016, American tourist Taylor Force (age 28) was stabbed to death and 11 others injured in Jaffa. The terrorist began running in the direction of Tel Aviv. A witness video that was uploaded onto the social media shows him running alongside cars standing still in traffic, attempting to stab some of them through open windows. After he had been cornered by police, bystanders shouted out encouragement to the police officers to kill him and to continue to shoot even after he had been neutralized. Finally, someone said “enough”.
There is no doubt to me that this terrorist was still a danger to others and killing him was justified. However, the behaviour of the crowd, the expectation that the police would continue to shoot at a dead body, makes me shudder.
I spoke to Israeli Police Foreign Press Spokesman Mickey Rosenfeld about this case as well as the Jerusalem incident. Here, as in the earlier event, you cannot hear police ordering the suspect to lower his weapon. The shouts of the crowd is not what causes the police to decide on a course of action — their training does. And when this very dangerous man, still intent on harming people, refused to throw his knife down, and refused to allow himself to be apprehended, there was only one thing to do. Could they have shot him in the legs instead of killing him? I don’t know, and I did not think to ask Rosenfeld about that. I assume that that was part of the post-incident debriefing or investigation. Maybe I am wrong.
Fourth Problematic Event – The Hebron Shooting Incident
Later that same month, on March 24 2016, Elor Azaria found himself in a situation that changed the course of his life forever. He walked onto a scene following a terrorist attack on his fellow soldiers and shot the injured terrorist in the head as he lay on the ground. Representatives from B’tselem videotaped the entire incident and uploaded the tape, without the audio recording, onto the social media. B’tselem claimed that Azaria killed the man out of a desire for revenge because he had expressed anger at the terrorist. The tape reverberated around the world and political leaders were quick to condemn Azaria’s action, claiming it does not represent IDF values.
The audio, which was made available later, injected a bit of doubt regarding Elor’s motives: In spite of the fact that soldiers and first responders were walking around casually and seemingly without fear within inches of the injured terrorist prone on the ground, we can suddenly hear a voice call out that the terrorist moved his hand and might have on an explosive belt. That is when Azaria cocked his rifle and shot him dead.
We will find out in two days (Wednesday, 4 January 2017) which version of the story the court believes. But I have the feeling that had the videotape not been made and distributed, the incident would not have had any impact at all and none of us would have heard about Elor Azaria. Any investigation into the shooting would have remained a routine internal IDF investigation.
This does raise the question regarding how many similar incidents have gone unnoticed. In view of the ease with which such videos are recorded, I doubt there are many, if any, that were not documented.
Final Word For Now
Given the intensity of the wave of terror last year, it is perhaps remarkable that there were not more — many more — acts of vigilantism or encouragement of police to over-kill a terrorist as we saw in the tapes above. I would like to think that the charging and trying of the participants in the Beer Sheva lynch will calm down bystanders who will let the police do what they are well trained to do and to do it without background “music” calling out for more.
The picture is still not clear regarding Elor Azaria. I am waiting for the court’s decision Wednesday, and I hope that the entire script giving the rationale for the verdict will be made available to the public. After that, I will tell you what I think.