On Wednesday at around 10 a.m., the whole country and many international observers will hold their breath as the three-judge panel of the Jaffa Military Court hands down the verdict in the trial of Hebron shooter Sgt. Elor Azaria in the killing of Abdel Fatah Sharif on March 24.
IDF Judge Col. Maya Heller, Judge Lt.-Col. Carmel Vahavi and operational officer Lt.- Col. Yaron Sitvon holds the decision in their hands after a nearly eight-month trial.
The case goes beyond Azaria’s future and will impact the future direction of the army in dealing with murky security situations, the political arena, and, according to information obtained by The Jerusalem Post
, even international proceedings such as the International Criminal Court Prosecutor’s examination of Israel’s legal system.
The case arose from a March 24 incident, when two Palestinians attacked 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 wounded and fell 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.
The entire incident was caught on an extended video released by left-wing NGO B’Tselem, which showed so much detail leading up to the incident that the IDF could not claim that Azaria had been lunged at or was otherwise exercising any traditional notion of self-defense as is usually claimed in such controversial incidents.
The video went viral, drawing international condemnation, and unusually, immediate classification as murder by then-defense minister Moshe Ya’alon and IDF Chief-of- Staff Gadi Eisenkot. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu also condemned Azaria, though he did not use the word “murder.”
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 had suspected and yelled that Sharif might be wearing a concealed explosive vest under his black jacket, potentially creating a self-defense argument for Azaria.
According to a social media expert at a Jerusalem Center for Ethics conference in June, the general public swung from condemnation and embarrassment to overwhelmingly backing “one of its own,” with many even calling Azaria a hero.
Politicians, including Netanyahu and a top then-opposition Knesset member, Avigdor Liberman, started to go neutral or openly support Azaria, with Liberman showing up at his side in court.
Eventually, IDF Magistrate Advocate-General Sharon Afek, who personally intervened in the case, filed an indictment for manslaughter instead of murder (as some demanded) or negligence (as Azaria’s supporters urged).
The key players in the trial are defense lawyer, IDF Col. (res.) Ilan Katz (who co-lead the case with lawyer Eyal Besserglick), the head judge, Heller, and the reservist lead IDF prosecutor Lt.-Col. (res.) Nadav Weissman drafted specially from the private sector for the case.
From May through early July, Weissman and the IDF prosecution pummeled Azaria with accusations from his three senior IDF commanders: Col. Yariv Ben-Ezra, Lt.- Col. David Shapira and Maj. Tom Na’aman.
They accused Azaria of shooting Sharif in cold blood and out of revenge for his stabbing Azaria’s fellow soldier.
Weissman showed second- by-second video footage of everyone on the scene slowly and calmly walking right next to Sharif as opposed to showing any concern or distancing themselves from a potential bomb threat.
Even many witnesses who tried to take Azaria’s side that they had also worried about a concealed explosive vest, were shown walking next to Sharif calmly and with no indications of anxiety – seemingly disproving his self-defense argument.
Azaria’s commanding officers had said at worst Sharif presented a vague potential danger. The three generals countered that the possibility of a concealed explosive vest was a concrete danger.
While his commanders said that the video encapsulated how unafraid Azaria and others in the area were when he suddenly shot Sharif, the generals and many rank and file soldiers who were present on the scene said the video did not capture the tense atmosphere at the time.
Azaria’s lawyers have argued that the incident got into a gray area which blurred the difference between a potential and concrete danger.
Next, they argued that Ya’alon and Eisenkot unduly influenced the commanders, legal division and military police by condemning Azaria for murder before he was even arraigned for a lesser manslaughter charge.
Azaria’s defense team claimed that Maj. Tom Na’aman mismanaged the scene of the terrorist incident, which all sides agree was disorganized, and failed to comprehensively check if Sharif had weapons or a bomb.
At various points, the judges’ comments indicated they viewed the B’Tselem video as authentic and powerful evidence even as Azaria attacked its veracity.
Many low-ranking soldier-witnesses from the incident took Azaria’s side, but the IDF prosecution noted that none of them felt enough of a danger to shoot Sharif.
The defense tried to frame the trial as Azaria versus Na’aman, claiming that Na’aman hit Azaria and implying that all of this could be related to Na’aman’s tensions with Azaria.
But T.M., a friend of Azaria’s, admitted in court, with his voice shaking, that Azaria had talked to him about shooting Sharif as an act of revenge.
Also, IDF paramedic D.S., who was not a friend of Azaria, but has not been accused of having an agenda against him, testified that when asked about shooting Sharif, he tried to evade answering, saying he did not remember, and only later mentioned a fear of Sharif using the knife.
Critically, she said he never mentioned fear of an explosive vest.
Because of the case’s unique circumstances, it is unclear whether a conviction would lead to a jail sentence of months or years. Katz has already strongly implied he will appeal any conviction on the grounds of the trial being infected with Ya’alon’s pre-trial condemnation of Azaria.
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