Lawyers for an Israeli soldier charged with killing an innocent Palestinian in the West Bank have submitted letters to the High Court of Justice from former senior army figures that urged that the soldier not be criminally charged, saying that instead he should face disciplinary proceedings.
The case now before the High Court of Justice involves the 2019 shooting by a soldier of Ahmad Manasra, 23, who at the time was trying to help another Palestinian, Alaa Raida, 38, who had been shot and seriously wounded by the soldier.
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The soldier was charged regardless after the letters were submitted. A plea bargain in his case is being contested in the High Court.
According to the indictment, Raida was riding in his car with his wife and two daughters on the date in question in March of 2019 when another car collided with theirs near the West Bank village of Al-Khader and then fled the scene. Raida is said to have stopped his car near the intersection and then got out and waved his arms at the fleeing car.
The indictment alleges that the soldier, who was at a concrete pillbox near the intersection, thought Raida was throwing stones at Israeli vehicles. The soldier said he yelled a warning and fired into the air before shooting Raida.
Raida was seriously injured in his stomach. Manasra arrived at the scene with three other friends. The friends helped take Raida to a hospital while Manasra remained at the scene with Raida’s wife and daughters and helped them start their car. According to the indictment, Manasra was shot when he got out of the car and was shot again when he tried to flee the scene.
Among the 12 military figures who urged that the soldier not be charged was Moshe Ya’alon, the former defense minister and army chief of staff, who is now one of the leaders of the Yesh Atid-Telem faction in the Knesset. He wrote that a case such as this one should preferably be dealt with at the military command level if the soldier’s actions were in good faith.
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The soldier’s case is the first since that of Elor Azaria – who shot an incapacitated Palestinian assailant to death in Hebron in 2016 – in which an Israeli soldier has been charged with killing a Palestinian. Shortly after the incident involving Azaria, who was convicted of manslaughter, Ya’alon said Azaria had not conducted himself properly and was not a hero. At the time, the comments came as other public figures were coming to Azaria’s defense.
Another letter was submitted by Yair Golan, a former deputy chief of staff, who is now a Knesset member from the left-wing Meretz party, who wrote that the facts before him indicated that the soldier’s actions were reasonable.
The 12 letters were submitted for a hearing earlier this year, before the soldier was charged. After charges were filed, a plea bargain was reached in which the two sides agreed that the soldier would admit to negligent homicide and serve three months of community service. The letters have since been submitted to the High Court of Justice in response to a petition challenging the plea agreement.
The High Court petition, which was filed by lawyer Shlomo Lecker on behalf of Palestinians involved in the incident, seeks in part to require the prosecution to explain why the indictment did not include the wounding of Raida. It also asks for an order delaying the soldier’s sentencing until after the High Court rules on the petition. A hearing in the case is scheduled for this week.
Initially the military prosecution intended to charge the soldier with reckless homicide, the infliction of grave injury in aggravated circumstances and the destruction of evidence. The prosecution and defense then agreed to the plea agreement in which the soldier admitted to negligent manslaughter alone.
For his part, Lecker claims that the letters from the former top military officials contain incomplete information.
“My position in principle as well as in this case is that the number of cases in which criminal proceedings are filed against a soldier and commander for mishaps or mistakes committed in the course of combat should be kept to a minimum,” Ya’alon wrote in his letter. “In a case such as this, it is preferable that it be dealt with at the command level rather than criminal proceedings, so long as the action was carried out in good faith. … The criminal trial of a combat soldier who acted as expected of him in the circumstances of this case, and whose actions were carried out sincerely and with the assessment that he faced a real and present danger, could discourage soldiers and make them hesitate when determination and a quick reaction is required, and in the end prevent the army from carrying out its job of protecting the lives of citizens in Judea and Samaria [the West Bank].”
Golan’s letter was similarly worded and made reference to the soldier’s lawyers’ contention that the soldier was alone at the pillbox from which he fired, that he had not been properly trained and that he had received a warning from the Shin Bet security service about the possibility of attempted terror attacks in the area.
It also stated that the soldier believed that the lives of passengers in Israeli cars in the vicinity were in danger because he suspected that Raida was throwing stones at them.
“It cannot be said that the decision that [the soldier] took was unreasonable under the circumstances,” Golan wrote. “He should not be viewed as a criminal but rather as a combat soldier who acted in exceptional circumstances, to the extent of his limited training and operational capability, in urgent circumstances of uncertainty and a sense that someone else was under threat.”
In another letter, Maj. Gen.(res.) Ronni Numa wrote urging that criminal charges not be brought against the soldier. “I ask that you also consider the negative and deterrent message that a criminal trial such as this one might create,” he added.
The letters from other former military brass stressed that the soldier followed standard procedure required in attempt to make an arrest before shooting Raida – an allegation that the Palestinian denies. Raida said the soldier shot at him without prior warning.
In response to the petition, the soldier’s lawyers, Shlomo Tzipori and Ran Cohen, said after shooting Raida, the soldier looked away for a few seconds, and therefore didn’t notice that Manasra had arrived on the scene. When the soldier shot Manasra, he thought he was shooting Raida, the lawyers said.
A response on Ya’alon’s behalf for this article said that he had written his letter after reviewing information from the investigation of the incident and after meeting with the soldier, at which time Ya’alon questioned him in depth about what had happened. “The document speaks for itself,” the statement added.
For his part, Golan told Haaretz: “I am at peace with what I did and don’t apologize for it. If I had thought this was a soldier who woke up in the morning and decided that he would execute Arabs that day, of course I wouldn’t have intervened in the matter. My impression, after the material was presented to me, is that this was an incident in which I could understand [what was going on in] the soldier’s mind and the degree of pressure he was under. The purpose of the letter was to explain to the judge, who isn’t necessarily [familiar with such] operations, that this incident isn’t as simple as it appears. You need to understand the background and the situation. Good luck to anyone who tries to go head-to-head with me on this matter.”