The two witnesses in Jaffa Military Court on Wednesday could hardly be more different. The first was Col. Yariv Ben-Ezra, the former commander of the Hebron Brigade. The second was a combat soldier who served in the same company as Sgt. Elor Azaria, who was charged with manslaughter for shooting Abdel Fattah al-Sharif as he lay wounded. The soldier who testified on Wednesday — his name cannot be published — told the court that the stabbing carried out by Sharif on March 24 before he was shot was his first such incident.
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But the battle-hardened officer and the young grunt both testified that the scene in Hebron that day did not support Azaria’s claim that he feared Sharif was wearing a suicide vest.
The “simple soldier,” as he called, himself, tried to help his comrade. He even thanked Azaria, from the witness stand, for shooting the Palestinian assailant and said that he himself would have been killed had Sharif been carrying explosives. The soldier’s father even kissed Azaria after the court adjourned.
Yet the testimony of the soldier, who was near Sharif when he was shot, was damning. He told the court that he could see the assailant no longer had a knife, that he saw no evidence of explosives and that he didn’t feel himself to be in danger.
“I’m a young soldier, I don’t know about explosive devices, I’ve never been in such incidents. But had I feared a device, I wouldn’t have stood near” Sharif, he said.
Asked if had considered shooting the assailant, he answered simply, “No.”
Ben-Ezra, asked by Azaria’s attorneys why the wounded assailant hadn’t been checked for additional weapons, responded that the army had concluded in September that this process, which involves stripping the assailant and remaining much longer at the scene, is counterproductive.
“Our understanding is that difficult pictures from the scene of the incident create additional attacks,” he explained, because it makes the Palestinians want revenge. Consequently, the procedure in a dense urban area like Hebron is to remove the assailant as quickly as possible and finishing checking him in a more private location.
Asked about claims that the army began investigating Azaria only because B’Tselem published video footage of the incident, Ben-Ezra said he heard about the killing from the security coordinator of Hebron’s Jewish community, who described it as a case of “irregular shooting.” Ben-Ezra added that he hadn’t even seen the video when he decided to assign the case to the Military Police.
Ben-Ezra also addressed Azaria’s claim that he fired because he feared the assailant had a bomb. “To the best of my professional understanding, when you see the video — nobody felt his life was in danger,” he said. “I’m more than convinced that if people thought their lives were in danger, things would have looked different.”
Therefore, he continued, “I don’t see any justification for the shooting.”
Ben-Ezra added that he first heard Azaria’s story about fearing a bomb from the media, several hours after the incident. He did not hear it from any of the soldiers actually present at the scene, he said. “On the day of the incident, Azaria’s battalion commander, Lt. Col. David Shapira, told me Azaria’s explanation was ‘terrorists should be killed,’” Ben-Ezra said.
Throughout the hearing, it was clear that the judges were losing patience with one of Azaria’s lawyers, Ilan Katz. Court President Judge Col. Maya Heller rebuked Katz for shouting “Shut up!” at the prosecutor, and later ordered him out of the courtroom for saying, “It’s a disgrace what’s going on here.” Katz was allowed to return a few minutes later, after he apologized.
Combined with Wednesday’s outburst by Azaria’s father, who accused the prosecution of framing his son, it seems Azaria’s legal team and his family both recognize that the testimony isn’t going well for him.