One of the claims of the legal team for Elor Azaria, the soldier accused of killing a subdued terrorist, is that the military prosecution is selectively enforcing the law when it comes to his case.
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However, according to research by Haaretz, at least four other cases over the years in which the Israel Defense Forces has been fighting Palestinian terror, including during the second intifada, show a different picture. Soldiers have been indicted and tried for manslaughter since 2000, but in most cases the soldiers were not convicted and accepted a plea bargain instead.
In Azaria’s case, his lawyers have expressed willingness for such a compromise but the prosecution has rejected this option. The prosecution believes Azaria shot the terrorist intentionally, not because of fear of an explosive or a knife, as he claimed.
The only soldier to be convicted of manslaughter during operational action in recent years was a member of the Bedouin reconnaissance battalion, Taysir Heib, who shot and killed British citizen Tom Hurndall in Rafah. Hurndall, an activist with the International Solidarity Movement, was shot in the head by Heib. At first he was charged with aggravated assault and obstruction of justice, but a day after the indictment was served, Hurndall, who was in a coma for nine months, died in a hospital in Britain; the indictment was amended to manslaughter.
Heib convinced another soldier to lie and say that Hurndall was wearing the uniform of a Palestinian police officer and had a gun which he fired into the air. But during the Military Police investigation nine months after the incident, Heib admitted that he shot at Hurndall because the latter was making the soldiers angry and “disrespecting” them. He said he had not meant to hurt Hurndall, but Hurndall moved and the bullet struck him in the forehead.
The court ruled the shooting unjustified and in 2004 Heib was convicted of manslaughter and obstruction of justice. He was sentenced to eight years in prison but his sentence was shortened to six and a half years. He was released in 2010.
In 2010 a soldier from the Givati Brigade was indicted for shooting at a group of Palestinian civilians, at least one of whom was carrying a white flag, during Operation Cast Lead in the Gaza Strip. The soldier, identified only as S., testified that he shot at a Palestinian woman and then saw her fall. The court found S. guilty of killing Majda Abu Hajaj, 35, and her mother, Ria Salama, 64.
Following the incident, S. was dismissed from his post as a combat soldier. The indictment stated that he had fired without orders from his commanders, who were present at the scene. However, the prosecution was unable to prove a link between S. firing his weapon and the deaths of the two women. He was eventually convicted of a lesser charge – illegal discharge of a weapon – and was sent to military prison for 45 days.
In 2004 a soldier with the rank of sergeant major was charged with manslaughter when he shot at demonstrators after a protest had broken up, although his life was not endangered. The court determined that he knelt on one knee and fired at distance of 150 to 200 meters, hitting a 14-year-old Palestinian, Omar Amr Musa, who died a year later. Two of his bullets also struck and wounded another Palestinian. Five years later, he was charged with illegal discharge of a weapon and demoted to the rank of private.
In another case, a member of the Military Police, Ben Dery, is currently on trial for manslaughter in the death of Nadim Nuwara, 17. Nuwara was killed during a demonstration in the West Bank town of Betunia on May 17, 2014. According to the indictment, Dery switched the blanks in his M16 with live bullets, although the forces on the scene had been instructed to use rubber-tipped steel bullets.
None of these cases, nor others that have come before the court in recent years, have reverberated like the Azaria case, which has precipitated intense public debate, rallies, statements by politicians and a campaign to raise money for the soldier’s defense.