“You aren’t a combat soldier anymore. You are a liar!”
Those were the words IDF Lt.-Col. David Shapira directed at Elor Azaria, while questioning the soldier in Hebron on March 24 after Azaria shot dead a neutralized terrorist.
Shapira was testifying under cross-examination in Jaffa Military Court court on Tuesday, as part of Azaria’s manslaughter trial which has transfixed the nation and attracted global attention.
The commander was the senior officer who conducted an impromptu review on the spot, including questioning Azaria over his decision to shoot Abdel Fatah al-Sharif in the head after he had stabbed a friend of Azaria’s – even though al-Sharif was already wounded and lying almost motionless on the ground.
Shapira said that given the constant terror in Hebron, soldiers were trained extensively on the rules of engagement, and that Azaria was “generally an excellent soldier” up until the incident.
Upon arriving at the scene, Shapira testified that he was only viewing the incident in terms of the stabbing attack committed by al-Sharif, and another already shot-dead Palestinian.
However at one point, Hebron commander Col. Yariv Ben Ezra asked him to clarify if an additional incident had occurred with an unauthorized shooting of al-Sharif.
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Shapira first spoke with Maj. Tom Naaman, who reported that the incident was much worse and grave than he realized, and that Azaria had killed al-Sharif while he lay defenseless on the ground.
Shapira testified that Naaman repeated what Azaria told him: that he shot al-Sharif because he was a terrorist and deserved to die.
Shapira said he then asked Azaria directly why he had shot al-Sharif.
Azaria responded that he saw the terrorist move, and that a knife was nearby.
Shapira then asked Azaria why he had not simply kicked the knife away in light of al-Sharif’s wounded condition, and why he specifically had moved to the extreme action of shooting the Palestinian in the head.
Azaria told him, Shapira testified, that he had felt in danger, at which point Shapira said he told Azaria: “I do not need a soldier-fighter like you. You are not a soldier anymore. You are a liar!” Shapira then informed Azaria that he was suspended and would be investigated, explaining that he had changed his story from what he had told Naaman only minutes before.
Shapira said that at no point did Azaria mention to him or Naaman anything about his concerns of an explosive vest.
Azaria has claimed he had feared the terrorist was wearing such a vest, and therefore shot him.
Other witnesses at the trial have questioned that claim, saying Azaria had shot the terrorist in an act of revenge for stabbing his friend – a statement he made to a co-soldier, T.M., who testified on Monday.
The commander added that even if Azaria had suspected an explosive device, the rules of engagement do not allow for immediately shooting to kill merely on suspicion, as they do when a soldier actually sees a bomb.
The cross-examination battle was one of the fiercest of the trial, with the defense apparently intent on trying to damage Shapira’s credibility due to the strength of his accusations against Azaria.
On cross-examination, defense lawyer Eyal Besserglick lit into Shapira from the start, declaring, “you are not connected to your own soldiers, you are cut off from their reality.”
Besserglick read out a number of statements from soldiers serving under Shapira, who said they had not received proper training for incidents such as what they had experienced, especially on how to handle a possible explosive device.
Shapira and Besserglick battled extensively over whether the soldiers’ training in rules of engagement had covered the possibility of an explosive device, with the commander standing his ground and implying the defense lawyer was twisting their statements out of context.
Azaria’s other defense lawyer, Ilan Katz – at one point frustrated with Shapira’s combativeness, counterattacks on the defense, and refusal to be cornered into traps the defense was setting – said, “in this court, you are not an officer with a rank…you are no different than any other witness.”
Upon finishing his almost nine-hour testimony, Shapira shook Azaria’s hands and told him that despite his testimony, “I respect you.”
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