Political activist Baruch Marzel is identified strongly with the radical rightwing in Israel. He even ran for the Knesset on the extreme rightwing party Otzma LeYisrael list and has been visible in its many events of political street theater during the last election and the elections before that. After the medic Sergeant Elor Azaria had shot dead a terrorist who was already lying on the ground, “neutralized,” in Hebron last Purim, Marzel reportedly shook the shooter’s hand. Marzel also told anyone who would have cared to listen at the time that security forces were keeping him and other civilians away from the stabbing site where two terrorists were under guard, meaning there was fear one of them could blow himself up.
Ma’ariv reporter Kalman Liebskind noted on Saturday that there’s no doubt Baruch Marzel believed Azaria’s shooting was justified, surely on ideological grounds but also, it appears, based on the IDF rules of engagement. So how come, asks Liebskind, Military Police never took down Marzel’s testimony? Does it mean the MPs were only soliciting testimonies that fit an already preconceived theory on the shooting? It’s starting to look that way, Liebskind argues.
The most disturbing point about the Azaria episode is the counter-intuitive behavior of the IDF brass. One would have thought that in the case of an excellent soldier with a perfect record such as Sergeant Azaria, the IDF would be invested in finding him not guilty. But the fact is that the IDF prosecution is invested not only in finding him guilty, but in having him suffer humiliating conditions through the process, and associating him with political interests that he is not remotely connected to. And to make sure they find him guilty, the military prosecution conscripted one of Israel’s top litigators, Nadav Weisman, to lead its team.
So why are so many top officers and politicians, including the IDF chief of staff, the IDF spokesperson, and the former defense minister, so invested in giving the IDF a bad name should the court decide against Sergeant Azaria? Is it because they committed themselves early on to the B’Tselem version of events, based on a video, smeared a soldier’s name in public, accusing him of murder — and now they’ll look bad should he be found not guilty?
“The situation we’re in, with IDF and security apparatus senior officials who are crossing their fingers and praying for the conviction of the soldier and for a ruling that the terrorist was eliminated in an illegal manner — this might be the real story,” writes Liebskind.
Last Thursday, Azaria’s company commander Major Tom Naaman testified against him. There’s no doubt that his testimony did not help the defendant’s case. But then Israeli media began to report a huge incitement campaign against Naaman, complete with death threats. This incitement story was then repeated like a mantra by politicians, until eventually it became an established fact — the brave officer who dared testify against the shooter Azaria is now in fear for his life because of the thousands of rightwing hooligans looking to get even with him.
The only problem with this story is that it never actually happened. The website Perspectiva contacted the two biggest social network monitoring companies in Israel, which showed that on Facebook there had been only 100 large scale group discussions of the testimony, of which 68 were critical. Altogether, over the entire period there were 4,400 entries online mentioning Naaman’s name, out of which 1,500 used blunt language that could be described as crossing a red line. This out of 3.3 million daily entries on Facebook in Israel.
When former defense minister Moshe Ya’alon attacked Sergeant Azaria, he was vilified in 1,600 group conversations per day, and when President Rivlin spoke at a Breaking the Silence gathering in New York he was the subject of 1,000 daily hostile large-scale conversations online. The response to the company commander’s testimony was truly puny in comparison — but the powers that be in Israel’s politics and media needed a witch hunt against him, so a witch hunt they reported.
It was also an opportunity for Kfir Brigade commander, Col. Guy Hazut, and other senior officers to tell the media they supported Major Naaman, who stands alone against the mob of rightwing thugs — never mind that they are imaginary.
“Imagine what goes on inside the head of a soldier who is supposed to testify in this trial and wishes to support [the defendant] Azaria’s version,” writes Liebskind. “He has to be nuts to do it. He knows his testimony would contradict the testimony of his company commander, that it would show up the chief of staff, that it negates the perception of his brigade commander. Can anyone take seriously any of the testimonies in this case?”
Finally, Liebskind compares the two testimonies given by Major Naaman. In the first one, shortly after the shooting, Naaman repeats the very same answer: “I approached the soldier, asked him why he did it, and he said he saw [the terrorist] move.” Naaman later the same day told the MPs, “When I asked Elor after the event, on the side, what happened, he told me he saw him moving and that’s why he shot.” The MP investigator asked him, “In your opinion, did Elor feel danger from the terrorists who were lying down?” and Naaman responded, “I don’t know. I don’t think so, maybe he saw him moving and got scared.”
One night later, with the media circus celebrating all around the episode, Naaman gave a second testimony, and the version he had repeated four times, about Azaria telling him he had seen the terrorist, vanished. Instead, Naaman shared that Azaria told him the terrorist “needed to die.”
Two days later, Naaman gave yet another testimony, and now he told investigators: “I asked him why he did it and he told me, this terrorist is alive and he needs to die.”
When Azaria’s attorneys asked Naaman in court which of his testimonies they should go with, did the terrorist move, didn’t he, Naaman answered, “Now I don’t recall exactly.”
Needless to say, Liebskind does not believe it is possible for the court to make a reliable ruling with this much pollution surrounding the testimonies.