Sgt. Elor Azaria on Monday denied all of the manslaughter charges against him for shooting to death Abdel Fatal al-Sharif in Hebron on March 24 after the terrorist had already been wounded while attacking soldiers and was lying immobile on the ground.
The incident was picked up on a video distributed by B’Tselem, went viral online and has dominated the airwaves with a war of words over Azaria’s guilt or innocence.
It has pitted outgoing defense minister Moshe Ya’alon and IDF Chief-of-Staff Lt.-Gen. Gadi Eisenkot, who condemned Azaria’s actions, against incoming defense minister Avigdor Liberman and various politicians on the Right, who say they rushed to judgment.
Many analysts even cite a dispute over the issue between Ya’alon and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu as the beginning of the breakdown in their relationship, which is about to culminate with Liberman replacing Ya’alon.
Azaria’s denial before the Jaffa Military Court included claiming self-defense and blasting the IDF prosecution for what his lawyers called arbitrary enforcement.
According to Azaria’s lawyers, he thought that shooting al-Sharif was the only way to save his life and the lives of nearby soldiers, thinking that al-Sharif was about to attack with a knife and an explosive belt.
Further, he felt the danger to his life was imminent and that the IDF has singled him out for harsh treatment for non-legal reasons despite having let other soldiers off in the past for similar conduct with only a reprimand and no criminal prosecution.
His lawyers even demanded to know why the IDF had indicted Azaria, but cleared IDF Col. Yisrael Shomer when in July 2015 he shot Muhammad al-Casba in the back, killing him, while the Palestinian minor was running away from him.
IDF prosecutor Lt.-Col. Nadav Weissman responded that the cases were completely different, since Shomer killed al-Casba by accident while aiming for his legs in order to detain him, after al-Casba had broken his car windshield with a large rock.
In contrast, Weissman said that Azaria had no basis for shooting intentionally to kill al-Sharif as he did.
The no-holds-barred legal fight was over whether the IDF prosecution must give the defense classified documents from investigations of IDF soldiers for shooting Palestinians, when the soldiers were not indicted.
The defense wants the documents to argue that the IDF is biased against Azaria, while the prosecution argues that the documents are irrelevant, because Azaria’s shooting of al-Sharif was such a clear violation of the rules of engagement.
The court will decide that issue in the near future, though it did not set an exact date for its decision.
Toward the end of the hearing, an IDF Lt.-Col. presented in closed session before the court and the defense the full classified findings of the IDF investigation against Azaria.
Also, on Monday, Judge Lt.-Col. Yogev Yifrach was replaced by Judge Lt.-Col. Yaron Sitvon on the threejudge panel, after the defense objected that he was too close with key prosecution witness Col. Yariv Ben Ezra, Azaria’s commanding officer.
Sitvon joins Judges Col. Maya Heller and Lt.-Col. Carmel Vahavi on the panel.
Outside the courthouse, about 20 protesters continued to hold signs in support of Azaria and against the trial.
One of them slammed Avigdor Liberman for moderating his tone slightly on the case on Monday, saying that he would respect the court’s verdict whatever it turned out to be.
Azaria’s trial kicked off on May 9 and the next hearing is set for June 1.
According to the indictment, the incident started around 8 a.m. on March 24, when two Palestinians, al-Sharif and Ramzi Aziz Mustafa Kusrawi, attacked Sec.-Lt. M.S. and Cpl. A.V. at the Jilbar checkpoint in Hebron.
Responding to the attack, M.S. and A.V. shot and killed Kusrawi, while shooting six times and seriously wounding al-Sharif, who had stabbed and wounded A.V.
The indictment states that Azaria arrived on the scene “a few minutes later” as a medic and initially attended to A.V.’s wounds, then spent several minutes in the area uneventfully, retrieving his helmet which he had placed on the ground.
He handed it to a fellow soldier, took a few steps toward al-Sharif, cocked his rifle and fired one shot into his head, killing him instantly.
The indictment also says that Azaria fired on the Palestinian “against the rules of engagement, with no military necessity, at a moment when the terrorist al-Sharif was lying on the ground, was not engaging in further attacks and did not constitute an immediate danger to the defendant, to the civilians or to the soldiers in the area.”
An autopsy established that Azaria’s shot caused al-Sharif’s death, though the defense hinted that it may contest this issue during the trial as well.
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