An Israeli soldier who shot a wounded Palestinian assailant to death in Hebron on March 24 was charged with manslaughter on Monday.
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During the hearing, the military court in Jaffa cleared the soldier's indentity for publication. He was named as Elor Azaria, 19, a resident of Ramle.
According to the indictment, Azaria opened fire in "violation of the rules of engagement, and without operational justification, while [Abdel Fattah] al-Sharif lay wounded on the ground ... and did not pose immediate and real threat to the defendant, civilians or soldiers in the area."
Azaria was also charged with unbecoming conduct.
"As the father of a soldier I understand all the soldiers' parents," Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said. "I want to tell the public, lower the flames. I am sure the military tribunal will consider all the circumstances of the incident."
"Our soldiers are not murderers, they are operating against murderers," Netanyahu added. "And even when a solider makes a mistake I hope that a way will be found to balance between the action and the event."
A rally in support of the soldier will take place at Tel Aviv’s Rabin Square on Tuesday.
Two weeks ago the military prosecution came to the conclusion that the accumulated evidence warranted Azaria’s indictment. The prosecution believes that the things the soldier said to several soldiers and an officer right after the shooting, including, “He deserves to die,” indicate that the motive for shooting the attacker, Sharif, was revenge. The soldier told Military Police investigators that he shot the terrorist because he feared he had a bomb or explosive belt on his person.
“I used reasonable force with one shot. I shot one bullet to neutralize the threat I felt,” Azaria told the Military Police. “If he’d had an explosive belt, I wouldn’t be in court, but in a cemetery. I wouldn’t have shot him if I hadn’t felt a tangible threat.”
From the probe into the incident it emerged that Azaria shot Sharif in the head around 10 minutes after the attack, in which Sharif and another Palestinian attacker were shot several times after they stabbed a soldier at a guard post in the Tel Rumeida neighborhood of the Hebron settlement. The shooting by Azaria was filmed by a volunteer with the human rights group B’Tselem, and the film made wide rounds on social and mainstream media. The pathology report later confirmed that it was Azaria's shot caused Sharif’s death.
Even before the film was posted, the Israel Defense Forces conducted two internal investigations led by the battalion commander, Lt. Col. David Shapira, and the Judea and Samaria Division commander, Brig. Gen. Lior Carmeli. In neither of these probes did the soldier claim that he had shot Sharif because he feared an explosive belt. Azaria, a combat medic in the Kfir Brigade, was arrested on the day of the shooting. At first he was held in a military prison, but was later held in “open detention” at a military base.
Both the prosecution and the defense agreed to release the soldier form his open detention – which is similar to being confined to the base – for the Passover holiday. The officer's attorneys asked the tribunal to remove the gag order barring publication of the soldier's identity, which had been imposed based on their request.
The military prosecutors and the soldier's defense attorneys said during the discussion that they are interested in a trial of proof, and to call officers to testify. Attorney Ilan Katz, the soldier's attorney, said "this is a case that will take a long time, because we will leave no stone unturned – the soldier does not deserve imprisonment."
Military prosecutors asked to extend the soldier's open detention for the duration of the trial. Lt. Col. Aduram Riegler, the attorney for operational affairs, who presented the indictment against the soldier, said the soldier's version of events cannot be accepted.
"The main controversy is about that we do not at all believe the accused's version, that he acted in self-defense," Riegler said, adding that he bases his remarks not only on video footage of the incident but also on statements after the incident and the contradictions in the soldier's version of events.
Riegler says his continued incarceration "has significance considering the current security situation, and in order to place clear and unequivocal restraints (for other soldiers)." The officer's attorneys oppose the request and say the soldier poses no risk. Attorney Eyal Besserglick said that the trial may last as long as a year, and therefore his (the soldier's) continued imprisonment would be disproportionate.
This is the first time in over 10 years that an IDF soldier has been charged with manslaughter for a killing that took place during field operations. The last such case known to the Yesh Din organization, which keeps track of law enforcement against IDF soldiers, was that of Sgt. Taysir al-Heib, who shot British peace activist Tom Hurndall, in April 2003. Hurndall died nine months later. Heib was convicted of manslaughter and sentenced to eight years’ imprisonment.
Three years ago a combat soldier in the Home Front Command was convicted of causing death by negligence to Oudi Darwish, a Palestinian laborer from Dura who tried to enter Israel through one of the breaches in the separation barrier. At first the military prosecution wanted to charge him with manslaughter, but in a plea agreement the charge was reduced to causing death by negligence. He was sentenced to seven months’ imprisonment.
The company commander was also charged with causing death by negligence a year-and-a-half later, but was acquitted.