All of the decorated IDF commanders who have testified against him are liars, Hebron shooter Elor Azaria told the Jaffa Military Court on Sunday, as he began what are expected to be three days of dramatic testimony in his manslaughter trial.
Azaria is on trial for shooting Abdel Fatah al-Sharif on March 24 in Tel Rumeida in Hebron.
Sharif and another Palestinian attacked two IDF soldiers, wounding one of them (O. – name under gag order). The rampage was stopped when soldiers killed one attacker, and wounded and “neutralized” Sharif.
About 10 minutes later Azaria arrived at the scene and shot Sharif in the head with IDF Prosecutor Lt. Col. Nadav Weissman saying he has proved over the last six weeks that the shooting sufficiently violated the rules of engagement for a manslaughter conviction.
On Sunday, defense lawyers Ilan Katz and Eyal Besserglick started their full-fledged counterattack on that case, starting with the testimony of Azaria himself that he had acted in self-defense.
The Hebron shooter addressed head-on the allegations of his three commanders, Col. Yariv Ben Ezra, Lt. Col. David Shapira and Maj. Tom Naaman, that his shooting Sharif was unjustified.
When Katz asked Azaria what he thought of accusations that he was lying, he said “They are lying. Why are they lying? I don’t know. But my understanding is they think they made a mistake… I explained everything to them, and they did not want to listen.”
Azaria accused all three commanders, along with former defense minister Moshe Ya’alon and IDF Chief-of-Staff Lt.-Gen. Gadi Eisenkot, of caring more about the media and how a video of the event looked than they did about the truth.
Broadly speaking, the difference in the narratives is that the commanders all say that Azaria initially admitted to shooting Sharif as revenge for his stabbing of his friend O., only mentioning self-defense later, whereas Azaria says he spoke of self-defense from the start.
Honing in on his reasons for shooting Sharif, he explained that a range of factors that led him to the decision to shoot Sharif.
Azaria, trained as a medic, said that the pressure and tension regarding potential danger was huge as he looked over the scene with the blood of his friend O. on his hands after having stopped his comrade’s bleeding wound with his bare hands.
For some reason, Naaman and other soldiers were acting with negligent indifference in the area, ignoring that Sharif was still moving his head and his hands, he said.
Further, “the knife was close to him, he had a suspiciously large black coat, the Purim parade was scheduled, the Shin Bet had predicted a major attack and here was an attack… When I added everything up, I understood there was a serious and immediate danger to people in the area,” Azaria continued.
Next, he described his dual concerns that Sharif might stab someone with the knife or might activate a hidden explosive vest, which “could lead to too many dead to estimate.”
He explained that he “hesitated for a second or two with a dilemma of whether to shoot. Then I understood, yes, there was no choice.”
Asked by his lawyers why he did not check in with his commanders first, he responded, “In the field of operations, there is not a lot of time to speak. One moment you are alive, and one moment you could be dead. There is not a lot of time to analyze. You realize every moment is important.”
Contradicting several witnesses from the IDF prosecution who said he fired on Sharif without taking any precautions that firing would set off a bomb, Azaria said he told the others to move before he fired.
He said that when Naaman and Shapira questioned him about why he shot Sharif, he tried to explain to them the knife and bomb dangers, but that they refused to listen.
Throwing in a major new contentious fact, Azaria also accused Naaman of slapping him twice on the face for shooting Sharif.
According to Besserglick, Azaria only remembered this recently, and as soon as he did, he reported it to the military police who questioned him about it this past week, even though the trial has been running for seven weeks.
Azaria has now requested that the military police investigate Naaman for striking him.
The IDF prosecution said unveiling such dramatic new evidence mid-trial was irregular, and they might object after Azaria’s lawyers made a formal motion to the court to add the new details into evidence.
The Hebron shooter also defended his shooting of Sharif on a range of other grounds.
He said he had been told a story about two terrorists who fired on a bus station where then a second wave of terrorists came by and ran over medics who had arrive to tend to the wounded. In that case, soldiers shot the second wave of terrorists, but only after they had hurt more people – something Azaria wanted to avoid.
Moreover, he had been told about a two-stage bus bombing attack – all of which was going through his head when he decided to shoot Sharif.
Afterward, he said multiple Jewish Hebron residents thanked him, saying they had also feared that he had a concealed explosive vest.
Part of the purpose of these answers was also to defray criticism of Azaria regarding of video footage of him slapping hands with right-wing activist Baruch Marzel in what looks like a problematic celebration for having shot Sharif.
Azaria also explained that his entire unit has close relations with Marzel, who regularly invites them to lunch on the Sabbath.
One of the most interesting parts of Azaria’s testimony was his framing himself as a humanist in his unit.
He began by talking about growing up in a mixed neighborhood in Ramle where his friends included Christians and Muslims, and his family taught him to respect all human beings.
He then recounted giving food and support to some Palestinians in Hebron.
In contrast, he described with disapproval an incident where soldiers from his unit beat an already handcuffed driver of a terrorist who had thrown a small explosive in the face of one of their co-soldiers.
He made it clear that that case was different from his, both because the driver was already handcuffed and because the soldiers who illegally beat him (with no video taken) were never probed.