January 19, 2020

Israeli soldier guilty of manslaughter in shooting Palestinian attacker

This story originally appeared on themedialine.org.

An Israeli military court convicted Sgt. Elor Azaria, a 19-year-old Israeli soldier of manslaughter after he shot dead a seriously wounded Palestinian attacker in the West Bank city of Hebron ten months ago. The shooting was filmed by the dovish Btselem organization, and ignited a furious debate in Israel. Azaria will be sentenced at a future hearing in several weeks.

Azaria did not show any emotion as the verdict was delivered, although he walked into the courtroom smiling, and hugged his mother.  After the verdict was delivered, one of Azaria's relatives was kicked out of the courtroom for screaming at the judge.

“Tomorrow there is no IDF,” she yelled, referring to the army. “The IDF is over.”

Another relative screamed “disgusting leftists” at the court and stormed out.

After the judges left the room, Azaria's mother screamed, “You should be ashamed of yourselves.” Azaria tried to comfort her and calm her as she screamed and cried.

In her opinion, Central Command Chief Justice Maya Heller said that Azaria had changed his story several times and that his version of events, that he believed the terrorist posed a threat to him, was “not credible.” She also said that it was Azaria's shooting that killed the terrorist, Abed al Fatah a-Sharif, who was lying wounded on the ground after he tried to stab a soldier.

“He opened fire in violation of orders, the terrorist did not pose any threat,” the judges wrote.

Before reading the verdict, Judge Heller read out claims of both the prosecution and the defense. She said that Azaria offered different version of what happened last March, first saying that the terrorist moved while he was lying on the ground, and Azaria thought his life was in danger. Later he said that the terrorist was already dead before Azaria opened fire.

During the trial, another soldier, named only as TM, testified that Azaria asked him, “How is it that my friend was stabbed and the terrorist is alive?” She said that statement had “significant weight in the decision.”

About 400 protestors gathered outside the military court to support Azaria. Waving Israeli flags, they accused the army and the government of unfairly targeting the soldier. They chanted “Death to the Terrorists” and “Free Elor.” Several protestors were arrested when they tried to block the street in front of the military court.

“I'm here for Elor – he should be freed,” Yardena Arbel told The Media Line. “Every terrorist should die. He (the terrorist) came to kill. Elor is the son of all of us. He entered all of our hearts.”

In Israel, there is universal conscription and most men and women serve in the army, with the exception of most Arab citizens of Israel, who can volunteer, and most ultra-Orthodox men. Soldiers are popular in Israeli society, and widely supported.

The case of Azaria deeply split the Israeli public. Some, like the demonstrators and others, believe that Azaria was unfairly targeted.

“They preferred the version of Btselem over the version of an IDF fighter,” Sharon Gal, the Azaria family's media advisor said. “They didn't give any weight to the evidence. It was like the court was detached from the fact that this was the area of an attack. I felt that the court picked up the knife from the ground and stabbed it in the back of all the soldiers.”

Some in Israel felt that the verdict was a victory for the rule of law in Israel, and a reminder that there are strict rules about when a soldier can open fire.

“Today's conviction is a positive step toward reining in excessive use of force by Israeli soldiers against Palestinians,” said Sari Bashi, Israel advocacy director at Human Rights Watch. As Human Rights Watch has documented, however, the problem is not just one rogue soldier but also senior Israeli officials who publicly tell security forces to unlawfully shoot to kill.”

The shooting in Hebron came amid a wave of Palestinian stabbing and shooting attacks that have killed 42 soldiers and civilians in the past 15 months, and wounded dozens of others. 

Ayman Odeh, member of the Israeli parliament’s Joint List political bloc — representing parties led by Arab citizens of Israel in the Knesset — told the Ma’an News Agency  that the “main difference in this case was the presence of cameras which documented the crime thanks to Btselem.” 

Palestinians said that while the court did rule that B’Tselem’s videos were authentic and admissible, many other crimes against Palestinians are never investigated. The dovish Israeli Yesh Din organization issued a report that of the 186 investigations the Israeli army opened in 2015 investigating offenses against Palestinians, just four yielded indictments. Human Rights Watch criticized Israel's “shoot to kill” policy.

Many Israelis seemed torn about Azaria's verdict.

“I am afraid that after the verdict, soldiers will be afraid to shoot Palestinian terrorists and they will just run away,” Roni Yitzhayek, a Tel Aviv taxi driver told The Media Line. “I think he should be convicted, but sentenced only to time served.”

Yitzhayek's daughter is currently serving in the army as a combat soldier at the Qalandia checkpoint between Jerusalem and Ramallah. He said that after watching the Azaria trial, he told his daughter that if a Palestinian ever tries to attack her, she should shoot at her legs, not try to kill her.

Last week, he said, that is exactly what happened. A female terrorist tried to attack soldiers at the checkpoint with a knife. His daughter opened fire, wounding the women in the legs.