Soldiers' Anger Led IDF Officers to Fear Mutiny After Hebron Shooting, Court Hears

Police bomb expert at trial of Elor Azaria testifies that bodies of terrorists are regarded as being booby-trapped until proven otherwise.

Israel Defense Forces soldier Elor Azaria, the so-called Hebron shooter, with his lawyer in the courtroom in Jaffa, on Aug. 28, 2016.
Nir Keidar

Israel Defense Forces officers were concerned at the possibility of a mutiny following the shooting of an incapacitated Palestinian assailant in Hebron last March, a military court in Jaffa heard on Monday.

The court is hearing the case of Elor Azaria, 19, who is charged with manslaughter after shooting and killing Abdel Fattah al-Sharif, a wounded, and incapacitated Palestinian terrorist, in the Tel Rumeida settlement of Hebron.

Testifying before the court, a company commander in Azaria's platoon said that the anger of the soldiers following the shooting was so great that "we were concerned at the possibility of a mutiny."

He added that senior officers had applied "insane pressure" on the platoon following the incident. "Soldiers and officers having talks and receiving letters and feeling the pressure that something had not gone as it should," he said.

"The platoon commander gets an order from the battalion commander to ensure that every company commander holds a discussion with his company. It doesn't happen every day."

The intention of the discussions, he said, was "to explain what was going on and how serious the incident was and to calm things down."

"I spoke about the chain of events, about the operational lessons and that we needed to rise above what happened and maintain our operational line."

Asked by the defense counsel why he didn't provide the wounded assailant with medical assistance, he said that, "my job was to neutralize the threat and that's what I did."

The company commander was the person who turned over the body of the assailant at the scene in order to ensure that he was not carrying an explosive device.

"I instructed the soldiers to maintain a distance and ensure that no-one touches anything that could turn into a present and immediate danger until a sapper arrived," he said.

"When I identified the terrorist, he moved only slightly, so I didn't see any reason to act unusually. I posted a soldier beside him to make sure that he didn't make any unusual movements. I told that soldier that he could open fire if the terrorist made any sharp movement or put his hands inside his clothing."

The company commander, who completed his military service about a month ago, criticized his previous superior officer Major Tom Neuman. "I didn’t feel that he took responsibility as he should have done," the witness said.

"All he said to me can be summed up as 'put the soldiers there.' I felt there was not enough taking of responsibility. I felt that I was still a commander and needed to be responsible."

Also testifying on Monday, a police sapper told the court that any dead body of a Palestinian terrorist that has not been inspected by bomb experts could theoretically be rigged with explosives.

The sapper, who was testifying for the defense, described being summoned to the scene as part of his job with the Border Police, shortly after the terror attack, but says he and his colleagues never actually made it there.

“We were far away,” he told the court. “We started advancing toward Tel Rumeida the moment we got the call. But then we were told that the bodies [another Palestinian had also been killed] had been moved to Harsina [a nearby outpost] and we should go there.”

Asked by defense attorney Eyal Besserglick whether moving the bodies had been dangerous, the sapper said, “From my perspective, the right thing to do is not to move the bodies until we have finished our inspection, because that’s the procedure. A body with an explosives belt – the belt could be activated by movement. A body that has not been cleared is suspected of bearing an explosives belt.”

In his report after the event, the sapper wrote that the terrorists involved in the incident were wearing clothing appropriate for the weather.

That comment was relevant in light of the testimony last week by another witness, Eliyahu Liebman – the security officer for the Jewish community in Hebron – to the effect that Sharif had been wearing a black jacket, which was unusual for the warm weather. Liebman said the jacket had looked inflated, “in such a way that anyone who has a little experience with the security reality would have a grave fear that the jacket was not filled with an air pocket, but rather an explosive or bomb.”

Asked what he had been told prior to arriving to handle the bodies, the sapper replied, “I knew there were two bodies of terrorists awaiting my inspection.”

He told the court he had not received any specific information about the two bodies. Asked if one was “more suspicious” in his eyes than the other, he said, “Not to the best of my memory.”

The prosecutor, Israeli Defense Forces Brig. Col. (res.) Nadav Weisman, asked the sapper what his expectations for procedures are when a body is suspected of bearing explosives. His answer: “I expect that nobody should go near the terrorist in any situation.”