IDF Lt. (res.) M.A. testified on Monday in a Jaffa military court that when Sgt. Elor Azaria shot a “neutralized” Palestinian terrorist lying on the ground in Hebron on March 24, he and the other soldiers present were still in danger.
The officer, whose name is being withheld under a gag order, supported Azaria’s line of defense that there was a suspicion that Abdel Fatah al-Sharif was wearing an explosive vest, and said he told troops under his command to call for the bomb squad to defuse any potentially dangerous device.
With this testimony, M.A. became the first of the officers on the scene during the shooting to cast doubt on the prosecutor’s case since the trial began several months ago.
To be acquitted, Azaria need only convince the three judges that there is doubt as to the manslaughter charges against him.
Sharif and another Palestinian had attacked M.A. and a fellow soldier with knives, wounding the other soldier.
The soldiers shot their attackers, wounding Sharif and killing the second Palestinian.
Azaria, a medic, arrived on the scene around 10 minutes later to attend to the wounded soldier, but then suddenly shot and killed Sharif as he lay supine and mostly motionless on the ground.
The shooting was caught on a video distributed by B’Tselem that went viral.
The other three IDF officers who testified – Col. Yariv Ben-Ezra, Lt. Col. David Shapira and Maj. Tom Naaman – all called Azaria’s shooting of Sharif unjustified. Collectively, and with testimony from lower-ranked soldiers at the scene, they had helped build a picture of Azaria killing Sharif out of revenge for stabbing the soldier, a friend of his.
Their testimony, along with footage that gives viewers a sense that there was little concern about danger after the initial shootings, isolated Azaria’s version of the events as highly improbable, if not manufactured.
In dramatic testimony, M.A. told the court that when he flipped Sharif over, he saw a knife next to him, and kicked it away. He said he then told his soldiers to stay away until Sharif could be checked out by the bomb squad, while posting one soldier to guard him. He also said he told his soldiers to shoot Sharif if he moved.
M.A. also testified that Naaman had mishandled the situation, saying he told the more senior officer about his suspicions regarding a bomb, and that Naaman seemed to ignore him.
The reserve lieutenant also said he did not think Naaman properly organized his soldiers in the area or prepared them for the potential dangers.
He explained that he and other soldiers were aware of instances in which terror attacks had been followed by additional attacks when the first responders let their guard down.
During a break from the proceedings, defense lawyer Ilan Katz told the press that M.A. was not attacking Naaman personally and did not have an agenda.
Back in the court, Katz called Naaman “a colossal failure” for his insensitivity and disconnectedness in his treatment of soldiers like Azaria.
M.A. also complained that criticism of Azaria shortly after the attack by then-defense minister Moshe Ya’alon and IDF Chief of Staff Lt.- Gen. Gadi Eisenkot had an affect on the way he and others viewed the incident. Defense lawyer Eyal Besserglick said this proved a previous point made by the defense that these and other public statements made shortly after the attack damaged the credibility of the military police investigation and the trial.
Trying to limit the damage, IDF lead prosecutor Nadav Weissman carefully dissected M.A.’s testimony, calling special attention to areas that were favorable to Azaria but had not been mentioned to investigators. He put the reserve officer on the spot by showing him footage where he is shown standing right over Sharif while talking to Naaman, as if there was no danger.
He pressed M.A. to point out to him where in the footage he felt he and the others were in danger before Azaria fired the fatal shot.
The witness could not do so, saying the video was limited and did not fully show the chaos and the anxiety the soldiers felt just after having been attacked and killing one of the attackers.
In answer to why he did not fully evacuate his soldiers from the area and why he himself stood over Sharif while claiming he was concerned about the possibility of an explosive vest, M.A. said he could have taken more safety precautions, but that his failure to do so did not mean there was no danger.
He went so far as to admit that he had not felt a specific, concrete danger rising to the level of needing to shoot Sharif, but qualified this by saying he had not seen what Azaria saw, and that maybe in real time he had not been careful enough.
Weissman confronted M.A. with the inconsistency of Naaman deny he had told the more junior officer about concerns of a bomb. In response, M.A. said that if Naaman denied he mentioned a bomb, it was a lie.
Honing in on this line of attack, Weissman noted that another soldier could not recall M.A. telling him to call in a bomb squad expert. M.A. said he knew he had told soldiers to call the bomb squad, although he was possibly mistaken about which soldier he had told.
M.A.’s was not the only significant testimony on Monday.
A Border Police bomb expert told the court that explosive procedures were not followed after the incident.
The expert stated that the body of the terrorist did not undergo an explosive check and should not have been moved without proper clearance.
Moving bodies that are suspected of carrying explosives is dangerous, against procedures and can pose an imminent threat, according to the expert’s testimony.
This witness, whose name is also being withheld under a gag order, was not willing to discuss the specific case, as he did not check the bodies until they were taken to a nearby base for inspection. About half of his testimony was taken behind closed doors due to concerns about revealing classified procedures.
However, he established how dangerous an explosive vest could have been, which could validate Azaria’s argument that others at the scene did not take the bomb threat seriously enough.
The trial continues on Tuesday and Thursday, with the defense expected to bring additional, lower-ranking soldiers who agreed with Azaria’s professed sense that there was still a danger.
Later, the prosecution is expected to cross-examine three IDF reserve generals who have filed affidavits in support of Azaria.