The Hebron shooter trial may be the most important trial of our era, even surpassing that of former prime minister Ehud Olmert.
In many ways it symbolizes a much broader struggle over Israeli identity as the country decides how to confront the ongoing Third Intifada.
Officially, the main character in the story is IDF Sgt. Elor Azaryah, who shot and killed Abdel Fatah al-Sharif in Hebron on March 24 after he had been neutralized while trying to attack soldiers.
But the real main characters who will do most of the talking and essentially tell the story to the world as it watches the trial’s developments are lead defense lawyer and former deputy IDF Military Advocate General Col. (res.) Ilan Katz and lead IDF prosecutor Lt. Col. (res.) Nadav Weissman.
Katz has also worked the case essentially as part of an equal team with veteran military law attorney Eyal Besserglick. Weissman is second seated in the trial by IDF Major Teah Shalit.
Born in 1959 in Tel Aviv, outside of giving the IDF prosecution headaches in the case, Katz likes rock music, such as Deep Purple, enjoys reading military history about World War II and travels frequently to Thailand being attracted to Buddhist history, Thai food and the country’s culture.
As a former deputy MAG, Katz is no normal defense lawyer and in some ways is a prosecutor’s nightmare.
He knows the ins and outs of the military court system, which is foreign to most lawyers, better than most IDF prosecutors and for decades longer than they have (since most prosecutors are in their 20s and 30s.) During two decades in the IDF legal division, Katz was a prosecutor in the northern, southern and West Bank offices. He was also an IDF judge in Shechem, Jenin, Gaza and was acting chief judge of the IDF West Bank and Gaza Courts before rising to be deputy MAG from 2000-2003.
Katz was CEO of the Israel Bar Association and the head legal adviser of the National Insurance Institute before becoming disillusioned with what he called the limits in how much one can improve things in public service in light of political issues and structural bureaucratic limitations.
As a defense lawyer, Katz handled a major case where the IDF prosecution indicted two soldiers for allegedly endangering a Palestinian while opening a suspicious suitcase during the 2008-9 Gaza war.
Katz had a noteworthy partial win, blocking the two from getting the prison time that the prosecution had sought and limiting the soldiers’ demotion to one rank.
He added he viewed the case as invalid and that it was only filed under pressure from the UNHRC Goldstone Report.
In another case, Katz blocked the IDF prosecution from getting a jail sentence for an officer accused of abusing his soldiers by showing that his rough training tactics for being ready for an incoming grenade attack arose from trauma he experienced when soldiers he knew were killed during ambushes in the 2006 Lebanon war.
Moving on to Azaria’s case, Katz criticizes the IDF prosecution’s posture, saying that when he was the deputy MAG “we put more of an emphasis on understanding what circumstances the soldiers were fighting in when operational incidents occurred.”
He said he understands that today’s IDF legal division is coping with a “much harder international situation than before, but especially for this reason, we are obligated not to bring [Azaria] to trial, but to…highlight to the world the hard circumstances in which our soldiers are fighting.”
Lawyers Ilan Katz, Nadav Weissman and Eyal Besserglick (Credit: Courtesy)
Katz slammed the IDF’s critics, saying that if Mexico had fired thousands of rockets on the US and the US military response led to casualties and destruction of property, it would get nowhere near as much attention.
Katz explained that his nameless accusations of interference with the case, which he has repeated after several hearings, were directed at just ousted defense minister Moshe Ya’alon.
He also said that he did not think Avigdor Liberman’s appointment as his replacement would impact the case now that it is already rolling. His partner for the case, Besserglick agreed, saying the prosecution “had no basis to file an indictment, let alone for manslaughter.”
He said political pressure brought about the indictment, the special appointment of a private sector-reserves prosecutor and to a hard push to please top defense establishment officials.
Besserglick also noted the prosecution’s “ignoring the rulings of all of the courts during the detention stage” as problematic and said “dozens of testimonies support” Azaria’s versions of events and will lead to his acquittal.
While Katz and Besserglick may be a standard prosecutor’s nightmare, Nadav Weissman is no normal IDF prosecutor.
Weissman has been one of the leading partners at Meitar Liquornik, Israel’s largest law firm, for 15 years since the unusually young age of 30 and has handled massive civilian court cases, such as the 2013 acquittal of the CEO of Remedia on accusations.
He also represented five classes of bond-holders in the gigantic IDB case, forcing Nohi Dankner to give up control of the mega-corporation.
He is in this case as part of his reserve duty for the IDF in which he has also handled a range of high-profile cases.
If Katz’s personality shifts from dead serious in court to much more loose and jovial outside, Weissman has a hardened serious look at nearly all times – a determination which probably assists him in running 10 kilometers multiple times per week no matter the weather conditions, rain or shine.
Weissman, 45, was born in Haifa but also grew up partially in Omer. He finished law school at the young age of 20. He immediately entered the IDF legal division where he worked from 1992-1998 directly with then-Military Advocate General Ilan Schiff, with then chief IDF prosecutor Menahem Finklestein and in other prosecutorial positions. Weissman entered private practice, but continued reserve duty prosecuting four major accidents which led to the deaths of soldiers ranging from the years 1999-2007 and has appeared before the High Court of Justice on multiple cases.
He also prosecuted a soldier for murdering another soldier in 1996 and beat back a famous attempt by Mordechai Keidar to wipe out his 1957 conviction for murder.
Sources close to Weissman denied that bringing him into the case was a move of desperation by the IDF prosecution after chief IDF prosecutor Col. Sharon Zigigi lost on the issue of keeping Azaria in full detention until the end of the trial.
Rather, they said that cases like this one are often given to reserve lawyers and only thing that is unusual is how much press the case itself is getting.
Weissman has made it clear in court that he is not the least bit intimidated by the rulings at the detention stage in which only a fraction of the evidence was considered.
Rather, he is firmly convinced the prosecution has the clear upper hand since Azaria has essentially admitted nearly all of the facts against him relating to killing al-Sharif with his only out being an unconventional self-defense argument.
According to Weissman’s public statements, this means that the burden of proof in the case has shifted to the defense trying to show how a special self-defense argument could apply – since ultimately al-Sharif in fact presented no danger.
He has also heavily emphasized Azaria’s numerous changes in his version of the story as showing he is not telling the truth.
Both lawyers knew of each other having overlapped while in the IDF legal division, but never worked on any issues or cases against each other before. They also both say they have significant respect for one anothers abilities despite their intense substantive critiques of each other’s tactics in heated moments in the courtroom.
Still, neither side has handled a case with this much national and global attention – a case whose result will have very real political, diplomatic and international legal consequences (it is being watched by the International Criminal Court.) Katz and Weissman were already famed lawyers. But this case, probably more than any other in their distinguished careers, will likely be the case that shapes their legacies and puts their stamp on history. Whatever that legacy is will also massively impact the future of the country.