An Israeli soldier on trial for shooting and killing a wounded Palestinian assailant accused the military top brass on Sunday of "throwing him to the dogs."
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Sgt. Elor Azaria, who has been charged with manslaughter over the March 15 Hebron incident, made the remarks as he testified in court for the first time.
Azaria accused commanders at the scene of being too complacent after receiving an alert of a possible attack planned at the site, saying he had feared the wounded man had a concealed explosive.
The prosecution says that Abdel Fattah al-Sharif, who was lying wounded on the ground after stabbing a soldier, posed no risk to Azaria or any of the bystanders at the scene.
Asked about the claim that he carried out the shooting in revenge for the stabbing of his friend moments earlier, Azaria responded, “I’m quite certain that I didn’t say that sentence. If I did say it, it seems to me an incomplete sentence that is being interpreted not as I meant it.”
“If it were out of revenge, like it's being said, I would have gotten closer to the assailant" in order to shoot him at point-blank range, he said. "I operated from a distance of some seven to 10 meters from him with the understanding that I can’t get any closer to him and shot one bullet at him. I neutralized the danger. As I saw it, I saved lives.”
Azaria said that the Shin Bet security service had warned that a “significant attack” was due to take place, and he thought that one of the assailants in the stabbing attack was planning to carry it out. He said he had only noticed the second assailant after he had treated the soldier wounded in the incident.
“I recognize that the assailant really is moving, moving his hands and head. In one of the videos I also saw that he moved his legs too, beforehand, when I didn’t notice him. As the event was unraveling, I went to get my helmet, which was left near the assailant with the gray, where I treated Ophir.
“I turn around, in the meantime thinking of the same alert of the type of attack that we were told was going to happen, at the same time as the [Purim procession] of children of Hebron. I look, return with the helmet, again identify the assailant moving his hand,” he stated.
“It already looked a lot more suspicious to me, I understand that this is the same type of attack we were told about, I take the weapon, pass on my helmet to the person standing next to me, cock the weapon to 60 degrees, [get myself into a shooting position], shout to everyone around him, I realize that people are complacent about the incident, people getting closer, standing next to him, despite all the shouts, the warnings, being told to be on guard,” he added.
“I shout, ‘move, move, get away,’ and from a distance of seven to 10 meters shoot at the assailant, one bullet toward the head in order to neutralize him and save the lives of the people at the scene.”
Azaria added that he had calculated the risks posed by the prone assailant. “I realize that there’s an immediate and real threat to the lives of the people at the scene,” he said. “One, that he’d get up, take the knife next to him and stab the people standing near him. Or that he’ll press a switch, and cause a much more serious attack with a number of casualties — it would be impossible to even imagine.
“I act the moment that I recognize the danger. Before the shooting, really a second or two [before], I still have a dilemma whether to shoot. I understand that yes, that I have no choice, and I shoot one bullet at him, toward the head. I shout to people at the scene, ‘move, move.’”
Azaria said his commander had told him at the scene that the incident would remain “between them.”
“I believe my commanders betrayed me.” he said.
“I explain to them that this is my first true incident, my first casualty, that it was the first time I had ever shot anyone. They attack me and don’t try to understand me at all. Tom [Azaria's company commander] only listens to half of what I say. The brigade commander doesn’t listen at all. Straight away they attack and humiliate me in front of everyone.”
At the beginning of the proceedings, prosecutor Lt. Col. (res.) Nadav Weisman referred to new details provided by Azaria, who claimed that the company commander slapped him after he shot the assailant.
Azaria accused then-defense minister Moshe Ya’alon and Israel Defense Forces Chief of Stafff Gadi Eisenkot of condemning him “before knowing what actually happened there... I feel as though they threw me to the dogs for fear of the journalists, the media, who showed a biased film clip.”
When asked about his interaction with Baruch Marzel, the former leader of the outlawed Kach group, at the site of the shooting, Azaria said that the far-right activist is well-known among soldiers in Hebron.
“Tel Rumeida is a family-like post, civilians can go into the post. Baruch Marzel would invite us, the whole company, to eat lunch with him every week on Shabbat afternoon. The company commander and the battalion commander would eat with him. It never raised a problem,” he said.
Azariya called Marzel “a good man," adding that "he would also treat us with chocolates and drinks when we were doing guard duty."
As for the video footage showing Azaria shaking hands with Marzel, the soldier said that “In Hebron I shake hands with lots of people — also with Palestinians, certain organizations, people from the [Jewish] settlement."
According to Azaria, the site of the stabbing attack wasn’t properly managed. He criticized the conduct of the commanders at the scene. “You can see civilians walking there, despite all the mess with the incident, as if it’s all over, all done. Photographers who try to enter the scene itself it’s meant to be a closed military zone," he said. “The commanders are complacent, they don’t even take notice of the assailant."
Azaria described his military service in Hebron, calling the city "very intense."
“The pressure there is very great. There’s a sense of tension in the air all of the time, especially in Tel Rumeida, where the friction between Palestinians and Jews can be called the greatest in the world. It’s a stressful place," he said.
He recalled a meeting three weeks prior to the incident when he heard about a Shin Bet alert about a Hamas cell that was planning on carrying out an attack in Hebron.
“There’s a difference between a Shin Bet warning and a police warning," he testified. "It’s much more serious about these things. A quality attack is an attack that could [include] an explosive belt, shooting, not only stabbings. It could be a combined attack, [they] don’t exactly know.”
Azaria also talked about life in his hometown of Ramle. "I have Jewish, Arab and Christian friends. There’s no difference between them,” he said.
Azaria’s testimony is expected to take three days. He was questioned by his attorneys yesterday, and will be questioned by the prosecution today and tomorrow.