Appeals Court Judge: Why Is 'Hebron Shooter' Unreliable While His Commander Isn’t?

Judge Zvi Segal questions different approaches to testimonies by Sgt. Elor Azaria and his commanding officer, Maj. Tom Naaman, on day of shooting in March 2016

Sgt. Elor Azaria, center, with his parents in the military appeals court in Tel Aviv, May 17, 2017.
Moti Milrod

A military appeals court judge asked Wednesday why the judges who convicted Sgt. Elor Azaria of manslaughter found him to be an unreliable witness after he changed his testimony, but didn’t feel the same about his commanding officer, who did likewise.

Judge Zvi Segal asked why the judges stressed that Azaria – who received an 18-month sentence in January for shooting to death a wounded Palestinian assailant, Abdel Fattah al-Sharif, in Hebron in March 2016 – had no credibility because he changed his version of events within 90 minutes, while his commander, Maj. Tom Naaman, was deemed credible despite saying things in his second questioning session he hadn’t said in the first, mere hours before.

“I am in an appellate venue and have run into an obstacle,” said Segal, elaborating that one of the reasons the original military court failed to believe Azaria is “a little unclear.”

The military prosecutor, Lt. Col. (res.) Nadav Weissman, responded that “the court looked at the whole picture, with all the data presented to it, and gained confidence in Maj. Naaman when it looked him in the eye.” Weissman said there was “no comparison” between a version that changes five times when the soldier contradicts himself and Naaman’s modifications.

The court of military appeals is hearing arguments from both sides about either increasing or reducing Azaria’s 18-month sentence. Weissman is arguing that the original sentence was too moderate considering the severity of the crime.

Earlier in the hearing, Azaria’s lawyer, Yoram Sheftel, said that Sharif had moved a hand while lying on the ground, which constituted a potential attack. He also said the fact Azaria shot the assailant in the head attested to the fear that Sharif was wearing an explosives belt.

The judge asked why Azaria hadn’t shot Sharif in the arm. “What can you do? An explosives belt kills everyone in the area, so it is highly proportional to shoot [Sharif] in the head,” Sheftel replied.

The prosecution noted that the original trial had rejected the concern that Sharif had been booby-trapped, and added that a person “who acts in good faith doesn’t have to change his version of events five times.”

During the hearing on the second day, Sheftel claimed that his client had never told his comrades-in-arms, as alleged, “He stabbed my friend. He deserved to die.” The soldiers who testified were wrong, Sheftel said, noting that there is no footage showing Azaria saying such words. Weismann responded that one of the soldiers who testified on Azaria’s alleged statement did so in writing.

During the first day’s hearing, Sheftel claimed Azaria “never had a chance in the [original] trial, given statements by top army people.” He also claimed selective enforcement, noting that Azaria’s case was similar to others in which policemen and soldiers shot Palestinians, but in those cases they were not tried. The prosecution rebutted that by saying the other cases had been investigated and, in almost all instances, the soldiers opened fire with justification.