Jenni Frazer

Azaria and Blackman: two soldiers and the pressure of war

The case of a British soldier accused of murder throws light on a similar case in Israel, says Jenni Frazer

March 23, 2017 16:00

Within the space of a few weeks, two cases hit the headlines — one in Israel and one here in Britain — which might give cause to rethink some easy assumptions about what it means to serve in an army — particularly the Israeli and British armies, which place an extraordinary emphasis on the moral dimensions of service.

The Israeli case is that of Sergeant — now Private — Elor Azaria, a 19-year-old conscript and combat medic, who, in March 2016, was caught on camera in Hebron as he shot dead a wounded Palestinian would-be terrorist. The man, moments before, had attempted to stab an Israeli soldier.

Azaria’s case, heard by a military tribunal, caused a public furore in Israel, with supporters and critics dividing fairly evenly along political lines. Those on the right — including Prime Minister Netanyahu — dubbed Azaria: “Everybody’s Child”, and called for a complete pardon. Those on the left said he had transgressed the IDF’s moral code and effectively performed a summary execution.

I must admit that everything I read about the Azaria shooting led me to believe it was an open and shut case. He appeared to be a not very well educated teenager, out of his depth in the military court, grinning nervously while a growing group of apparent charlatans on the make swirled around him.

Public opinion swung between people like the IDF chief of staff, Gadi Eisenkot, anxious about the effect a “not guilty” verdict would have on the army’s standing, and Azaria’s family and friends, who said he should never have been put on trial.

Part of his defence was that he felt his life, and those of his friends, were in immediate danger and that he therefore shot the Palestinian in the head, based on his training.

An almost identical argument, it turns out, was used by Sergeant Alexander Blackman, otherwise known as “Marine A”, who was given a swingeing 10-year prison sentence, later reduced to eight years, after he shot dead a wounded Taliban insurgent who had attacked his patrol in Helmand Province in Afghanistan in 2011.

Blackman, unlike Azaria, was a career soldier who had done numerous — and arduous — tours of duty in various foreign theatres of war. But, on this occasion, Blackman, faced with a wounded man who had just done his utmost to try to murder him and the rest of his unit, cast aside the rules of engagement and killed him — although he evidently regretted his action immediately.

In both Azaria’s and Blackman’s cases, there was filmed evidence as to what had taken place. And — as with Azaria — Blackman’s seemed an open and shut case. He was told by the judge at his 2013 military tribunal that he had “tarnished the reputation” of all those British service personnel who had served in Afghanistan.

After months of campaigning the Blackman team engaged QC Jonathan Goldberg to help in their appeal. Goldberg successfully persuaded Appeal Court judges last week to commute Blackman’s conviction down from murder to manslaughter. Time he has already served in prison may mean that Alexander Blackman will be free this week.

In both cases, the judges came down very heavily on the morality of army service, arguing that the army code of conduct needed to be applied stringently. The Israeli judge said: “The use of force must not supersede IDF values, among them the rules of engagement, which determines that a soldier protects humanity even in combat. The actions of the accused undermine the IDF’s moral fortitude and even if it concerns a terrorist, the use of force in taking a human life was invalid.”

The British judge told Blackman: “If the British Armed Forces are not assiduous in complying with the laws of armed conflict and international humanitarian law, they would become no better than the insurgents and terrorists they are fighting.”

Jonathan Goldberg is hesitant to compare the cases. But he says: “The common denominator, perhaps, is the stress and provocation which caused both soldiers to snap.”

Goldberg also points to the “one-hand-tied-behind-the-back” rules of engagement requiring combatants not to shoot at assailants if they were running away and their backs were turned. And, just as in Israel, “a wounded Taliban was entitled to the selfsame standard of treatment as our own Marines.”

For me, the Blackman case has thrown new light on the Azaria situation, and I am no longer so inclined to treat it as such a black and white issue. And it has given me new respect for those who protect us, and the conditions under which they operate, every day.


March 23, 2017 16:00

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