Hebron shooter Sgt. Elor Azaria was convicted of manslaughter in the March 24 killing of Abdel Fatah al-Sharif, in a verdict handed down by the Jaffa Military Court on Wednesday.
Sentencing arguments are set for January 15, with sentencing expected within the month. The maximum manslaughter sentence is 20 years, but expectations are that the sentence will be a good deal less than that, in light of the case’s unique circumstances.
Azaria’s lawyer Ilan Katz criticized the decision as unjust and pledged an appeal to the Military Court of Appeals, while Prosecutor Lt.-Col.
Nadav Weissman declared that justice had been served and the IDF’s purity of arms upheld.
The case has captured the attention of the nation and the world, as it cuts to the heart of battles over the IDF’s values; domestic political debates over national security and human rights; an International Criminal Court alleged war crimes examination; and global debates over Israel’s legitimacy.
In part to keep multitudes of loud and angry Azaria supporters at arm’s length, the verdict was given at military headquarters in Tel Aviv, instead of in the small court in Jaffa where protesters could get closer to the building and disturb the proceedings with chants.
Israel awaits verdict in divisive shooting case
Despite the planning, at the end of the hearing, multiple Azaria supporters screamed at the judges, Azaria’s mother grabbed on to him while sobbing, as though to keep him from military police, and one supporter lightly hit a reporter in the head with his jacket.
Azaria had been accused of unnecessarily killing Sharif, a Palestinian terrorist who was already wounded when he shot him. Azaria claimed self-defense, out of concern that Sharif might attack again with either a knife or a concealed explosive vest.
The so-called Hebron shooter’s trial was also unique because Azaria was caught on a video at the moment he shot Sharif, a copy of which later went viral.
Azaria was immediately arrested and brought to court in handcuffs.
But within a few days, other videos and information emerged showing that others on the scene suspected and yelled that Sharif might be wearing a concealed explosive vest under his black jacket, creating a self-defense argument for Azaria.
A panel of three judges led by IDF Judge Col. Maya Heller, who read the decision from the bench for close to three straight hours, determined after the contentious eightmonth trial that Azaria’s shooting of Sharif was not justified.
The judges rejected Azaria’s claims that he had acted in self-defense, fearing Sharif may have been wearing an explosives vest.
They pointed to testimony of his officers and, critically, of his soldier friend T.M., who was on the scene and testified that Azaria originally said Sharif needed to be killed out of revenge for stabbing a fellow soldier.
The defense’s cross-examination of T.M. had failed to knock down his testimony, the judges contended.
Azaria’s admission, spontaneously, that he killed out of revenge, is uniquely, objectively credible, Heller said, adding that he did not mention fear of an explosive device on the spot, but only after the fact.
Heller took the prosecution’s side that Azaria changed his story five times, and found that the final story lacked credibility.
Even as many expected a conviction, the decision was more lopsided than expected, with the court shooting down the defense’s claims, one after the other.
The court also accepted rank-and-file paramedic D.S.’s testimony that Azaria never mentioned a bomb, saying that witness had no incentive to lie. In addition, the judges added that Azaria had been evasive of many questions during cross-examination.
They did not mention three former IDF generals who testified in Azaria’s behalf until close to the end of the trial, and disregarded their testimony as being overly generic, not related to the specifics of the case and therefore irrelevant.
Heller stated that the judges rejected the defense’s claim that Azaria’s commanding officer, Maj. Tom Naaman, had hit him and therefore testified against him.
She said that due to Azaria’s story having so many holes, it could not contradict Naaman, and that Naaman’s story itself was internally consistent.
They also rejected a psychological report the defense filed, attempting to prove that Azaria was not in his right mind when he shot Sharif, when he gave his original version of the story, which he later changed.
The judges rejected the defense’s attempts to call the authenticity of the video of the incident into question.
They said the video was authentic and showed evidence against Azaria, even though it was taken by B’Tselem, a human rights group that regularly releases videos critical of Israel and has been accused of selective editing.
Heller said that Azaria acted cooly and was calculated, taking time to clear people away and remove his helmet before shooting Sharif. He showed no signs of sudden fear and did not act as if he was facing immediate danger.
Heller also rejected forensic arguments by multiple defense experts who said that Azaria’s shooting was not the kill shot, and that Sharif would have died anyway from his earlier wounds. She opted to accept the opinion of the state’s forensic expert, who said Azaria did fire the kill shot, saying the state’s forensic expert was more familiar with the specifics of the case and that the defense’s expert conclusions were based on generalities.
The case emerged after the March 24, 2016, incident that saw two Palestinians attack two Israeli soldiers at the Tel Rumeida checkpoint in Hebron at around 8 a.m.
One of the soldiers was stabbed by Sharif, who was then shot and wounded, falling to the ground almost motionless, while the other Palestinian, Ramzi Kasrawi, was killed on the spot, according to most accounts.
Around 10 minutes after the incident appeared to be over, Israeli army medic Azaria arrived on the scene and appeared to shoot Sharif in the head as he lay nearly motionless on the ground.