Detention of Israeli Soldier Who Shot Subdued Palestinian Extended by Two Days

Discrepancies found in soldier's account of events, prosecution says; hundreds rally in soldier's support outside court.

The soldier suspected of murder in a military court, March 29, 2016.
Ilan Assayag

A military court in southern Israel extended by two days the detention of a Kfir brigade soldier who was caught on video apparently shooting a Palestinian terrorist in the head after the terrorist appears to have already been subdued. The prosecution requested the detention be extended by nine days, but the judge ruled the soldier remain in custody only until Thursday. The soldier's identity remains under gag order.

In his ruling, the judge said that he found reasonable suspicion of an illegal shooting, but noted that the incident was "complicated" and that the accumulated evidence is inconclusive.

As the soldier entered the courtroom in Kastina he winked at members of his family. Dozens of protesters showed up outside the courthouse in support of the soldier.

The identity of the soldier involved in the incident, which occurred in the West Bank town of Hebron, is the subject of a gag order. The prosecution has not specified what the soldier is being accused of, but the motion filed to extend the soldier's detention states that he is suspected of murder, and the suspect, who is an Israel Defense Forces medic, was informed of this by the military police.

At the hearing, the prosecution told the court there are discrepancies in the soldier's account of events, adding that the soldier fired at the terrorist, Abdel Fattah al-Sharif, without any operational need for such action. The prosecutor presenting the case, Lt. Col. Adoram Rigler, said the soldier's continued detention is required so that the investigation against him can continue.

When news of the incident broke, it engendered strong reaction, with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Moshe Ya'alon condemning the soldier's conduct while other politicians, including Education Minister Naftali Bennett, the head of the Habayit Hayehudi party, accused them of jumping to conclusions.

Scene from a video released on March 24, 2016 by B'Tselem showing IDF Sgt. Elor Azaria  aiming his weapon before shooting in the head and killing a wounded Palestinian assailant in Hebron.
AFP

The head of the right-wing opposition Yisrael Beiteinu party, Avidgor Lieberman, is attending the hearing in a show of support for the soldier. On arrival at the courthouse, Lieberman said that he is attending the hearing to offset what he said was the improper interference by the prime minister and defense minister in the case. Likud Knesset member Oren Hazan also came to the hearing.

An investigation conducted by the IDF Central Command following the incident found that the shooting carried out by the soldier surprised his commanders who were present. The army said the soldier was not part of the force that was attacked by two terrorists, one of whom was Sharif, whom the soldier later shot and killed. Army investigators said the soldier arrived on the scene along with his platoon commander’s command group in his capacity as a medic. The investigation also found that the soldier told another soldier who was there that Sharif, “deserved to die” for stabbing their platoon comrades. A second soldier is said to have tried to calm him down, but the medic allegedly cocked his weapon and shot Sharif once in the head.

Under questioning by military police, the medic claimed that he shot Sharif because he feared for his life.  He also reportedly told his interrogators: “I fired the shot when the terrorist was alive. I did it because I felt my life was in danger.” His lawyer, Ilan Katz, argued at an earlier hearing on extending his detention that the shot was fired in accordance with the rules of engagement.

The autopsy of Sharif’s body should provide significant findings in the investigation. The autopsy has been delayed due to lack of agreement between the Palestinian’s family and the military authorities concerning the participation of a Palestinian pathologist in the procedure. The family wants the pathologist to take an active part in the autopsy, while defense officials will only consent to him acting as an observer. The autopsy could help establish whether it was the soldier’s gunfire that caused Sharif’s death, bolstering the possibility that the soldier would be charged with murder, manslaughter or negligent homicide. The autopsy could also establish that the gunshot fired by the soldier was not the cause of Sharif's death, if that was the case. 

Haaretz will be reporting live from the hearing. Stay tuned for updates.