Surrounded by continued national and media attention, the trial of Sgt. Elor Azaria, the soldier charged with manslaughter for the fatal shooting of Abdel Fatal al-Sharif in Hebron on March 24 – after the terrorist had attacked soldiers, but was then shot and lying wounded on the ground – opened on Monday at the Jaffa Military Court.
The shooting was picked up on a video distributed by B’Tselem, went viral online and has dominated the airwaves with a war of words over Azaria’s guilt or innocence pitting, Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon and IDF Chief-of-Staff Lt.-Gen. Gadi Eisenkot, who condemned Azaria, against various politicians on the Right, who say the two rushed to judgment. About 50 people protested outside the courthouse against Azaria being put on trial.
While the prosecution and the defense fought over whether Azaria was obligated to officially answer the indictment against him on Monday, ultimately the three judge panel gave him at least until May 23 and possibly longer, to answer.
Still, judges Col. Maya Heller, Lt.-Col. Carmel Vahavi and Lt.-Col. Yogev Yifrah did call Azaria to stand before the court. They told him to give his soldier identity number and read to him in a dramatic, if not overtly rebuking fashion, all of the allegations against him.
They asked him if he understood the allegations, and he said he did – while carefully refraining from pleading innocent or guilty, sticking to the defense’s stance that they will give a full response in the near future.Military courthouse in Jaffa
Much of the first day’s arguments centered around procedural issues, such as whether the prosecution had provided sufficient documents and explanations of documents to the defense.
The sides were particularly at loggerheads over whether the prosecution needed to provide the defense documents from parallel cases where it did not indict soldiers for actions similar to Azaria’s. The defense wants these documents to try to prove that Azaria has been singled out unfairly and arbitrarily in terms of treating departures from the rules of engagement as criminal.
The judges also surprisingly threw out the idea of arbitration, which is less standard in criminal proceedings than in civil proceedings. The defense seemed open to it; the prosecution less so.
At the end of the hearing, the sides also fought over whether Azaria could leave his army base on Independence Day.
The court ultimately ruled for the prosecution that he could not.
Following the hearing, Azaria’s lawyer Ilan Katz blasted the prosecution and the IDF, claiming that they are being pressured by unnamed forces to come down harder than necessary on Azaria.
Katz said that the court’s raising the idea of arbitration “shows that the court appears to think that the prosecution… has problems with the indictment.”
He added, “Reading between the lines… we are seeing aggressive interference from the highest authorities with their intervening in the legal proceedings by giving directions to the prosecution. The prosecution in this case is not independent.”
This last criticism of the prosecution, Katz said, was based on IDF Lt.-Col. (res.) Nadav Weissman telling the court he would need to advise before responding to the arbitration offer and Weissman’s push to “do a lightning-fast trial to take the case off of the public agenda.”
Katz did not discuss the possibility that Weissman merely needed to confer with one of his two superiors within the prosecution.
Weissman, who has been specially brought in from his normal civilian job as one of the country’s top trial lawyers, responded afterward, “As you know, from our perspective this case deals with an unusually grave issue. We are talking about a firing that had no justifiable operational basis at a terrorist who was already neutralized, against all of the rules of engagement.”
“We are dealing with a case in which the accused changed stories which, in our opinion, are not credible, and the evidence proves this. Because, in our opinion, he is not trustworthy, we filed the indictment.”
According to the indictment, the incident started around 8:00 a.m. when two Palestinians, Abdel Fatah al-Sharif and Ramzi Aziz Mustafa Kusrawi, attacked Sec.-Lt. M.S. and Cpl. A.V. at the Jilbar checkpoint in Hebron.
Responding to the attack, M.S. and A.V. shot and killed Kusrawi, shot six times and seriously injured al-Sharif, and al-Sharif stabbed and injured A.V.
Reports indicate that Azaria arrived about six minutes later, with the indictment stating that he arrived on the scene “a few minutes later” as a medic and initially attended to A.V.’s wounds.
Next, Azaria spent a few minutes in the area uneventfully.
Subsequently, Azaria retrieved his helmet, which he had placed on the ground.
He handed it to a fellow soldier, took a few steps toward al-Sharif, set his gun ready to fire and fired one shot into his head, killing him instantly.
The indictment also says that Azaria fired on the Palestinian “against the rules of engagement, with no military necessity, at a moment when the terrorist al-Sharif was lying on the ground, was not engaging further attacks and did not constitute an immediate danger to the defendant, to the civilians or to the soldiers in the area.”