Israeli soldier Elor Azaria, centre seated, in court charged with manslaughter by the Israeli military. His father prays behind him. Photo: Reuters

Elor Azaria: Trial of young soldier tears at Israeli army and society

William Booth and Ruth Eglash • November 4, 2016 • Washington Post

Tel Aviv: One of the most divisive trials in Israeli history is taking place in a cramped military courtroom in a peeling mansion in the Arab section of Jaffa.

It is the trial of a teenage Israeli sergeant, but in many ways it is about the Israeli army and the young men and women the Jewish state sends to protect its citizens and enforce its almost 50-year military occupation.

On trial for manslaughter before a military tribunal is a pint-sized recruit who sits in the courtroom beside his mother, who wraps her arms around his shoulders and sometimes cries.

Such a public trial of a soldier charged with killing a Palestinian is almost unprecedented here. The last witnesses appeared this week.

The central fact of the case is not in dispute. In March, Sergeant Elor Azaria fired a single bullet at close range into the skull of a Palestinian assailant as he lay wounded, sprawled on his back, on a street in Hebron in the Israeli-occupied West Bank minutes after lunging at soldiers with a knife.

This is not in dispute because the shooting was caught on video by a Palestinian volunteer for the Israeli human rights group B’Tselem, which denounced the shooting as the “direct consequence of inflammatory remarks made by Israeli ministers and officials, augmented by the general public atmosphere of dehumanisation”.

Many Israelis and Palestinians believe the only reason the 19-year-old Azaria is on trial is because of the video.

The question the court is asking is why Azaria shot Abdel Fattah al-Sharif in the head. Was it malice or self-defence?

The question many Israelis are asking is why Azaria is even on trial. They think he should have been given a medal — or, at worst, a reprimand.

“Terrorists need to be killed,” said Uzi Dayan, a general in the Israeli army reserves who testified in Azaria’s defence. General Dayan said that while serving as a commander in the 1990s, he allowed the killing of terrorists, even if they did not pose any immediate danger.

On this, Israelis appear divided.

Israeli soldiers carry the body of Abdel Fattah al-Sharif from the scene of the incident in the Israeli-occupied West Bank city of Hebron. Photo: AP

The Israel Democracy Institute and Tel Aviv University released a survey last month of Jewish Israelis that found 47 per cent support killing on the spot a terrorist who attacked Jews, “even if he has been captured and clearly does not pose a threat”. Support for killing the terrorist was highest among young Israelis and religious Israelis.

Forty-five per cent said that such a terrorist should be handed over to authorities.

Palestinians and Israeli human rights activists called the shooting a summary execution.

Palestinian women view the body of Ramzi al-Qasrawi, 21, during his funeral in the West Bank city of Hebron in March. Photo: AP

Moshe Yaalon, Israel’s defence minister when the incident took place, said Azaria’s actions were “an utter breach of the army’s values and its code of ethics in combat”.

After his arrest, thousands of flag-waving Israelis rallied in a central square in Tel Aviv to support Azaria and his family.

Israeli soldiers near the body of Abdel Fattah al-Sharif, who was shot and killed by Sergeant Elor Azaria in March. Photo: AP

For many Israelis, the trial is every parent’s nightmare. Military service is mandatory for most Israelis at age 18, and the public compact requires the society to support its young troops almost without question.

Courtroom №4 is tiny and intense. Four military prosecutors in uniform sit elbow to elbow at what appears to be a school desk. The four defence attorneys sit opposite, dressed in long black robes. A panel of three military judges loom above them at a dais made of cheap wood. A couple of wheezing air conditioners struggle against the humidity.

The prosecutors contend Azaria killed the Palestinian without cause. The defence says he feared for his life.

A Palestinian inspects the rubble of a family home demolished by Israeli troops in the occupied West Bank village of Sair, near Hebron, in August. Photo: AP

Since the trial began in early May, the court has witnessed hours of boredom, as the attorneys wrangle over points of law, punctuated by wrenching scenes that lay bare deep fissures.

“You’re trying to frame him!” Charlie Azaria, the defendant’s father and a veteran police officer, shouted at the prosecutors one day. He later suffered a stroke from the stress.

During the trial, enlisted men have openly contradicted the accounts of their commanders. Witnesses have accused officers of cover-ups and lies. Senior Israeli officers have traded insults. Soldiers have complained of being bullied and brainwashed.

Palestinian relatives mourn over the body of Mohammed Abu Hashhashi, 17, during his funeral in August near Hebron in the Israeli-occupied West Bank. Photo: AP

The shooting took place at one of the military checkpoints that protect 850 of Israel’s most aggressive Jewish settlers, who live in the heart of old Hebron, a town with 200,000 Palestinian inhabitants.

On March 24, Sharif and a friend attacked the Israeli troops with knives, wounding one soldier. The Israeli forces quickly responded and shot both men. Ramzi al-Qasrawi died immediately. But the video captures Sharif moving slightly, a twitching of his head and hand.

Israeli security forces during clashes in the Fawwar refugee camp near Hebron in August. Photo: AP

The video shows Azaria pulling his rifle off his shoulder, aiming and firing at Sharif as a dozen soldiers, officers, medics, ambulance drivers and Jewish settlers mill about.

Many commentators remarked that no one appears to flinch after the shot. They simply go about their business.

Major Tom Naaman, who was Azaria’s commanding officer at the time, testified that Azaria told him immediately after the shooting that the “terrorist was alive and needed to die”.

Quotes from courtroom testimony are taken from Israeli English and Hebrew-language media. The Washington Post also attended the trial.

Naaman said the scene was secure and that the two assailants were “neutralised” and posed no threat.

“I was angry that the shooting happened without my approval. In the initial questioning, Azaria did not mention fear of a knife or an explosive device to me,” Major Naaman told the court.

Major Naaman had to be publicly defended by the army chief of staff after receiving a deluge of phone calls and social media posts branding him a traitor for his testimony.

Soon after Azaria talked to Major Naaman, he was questioned by a more senior officer, battalion commander Lieutenant-Colonel David Shapira.

“I asked him why he had shot,” Colonel Shapira testified. “Elor answered that he saw the terrorist move his head and that there was a knife next to him. I asked Elor, ‘You were near him. Why didn’t you kick the knife away?’ Elor answered, ‘I felt I was in danger’. I told Elor that I felt he was not telling me the whole truth because after the incident he had told the company commander something entirely different. Elor was silent.”

According to Colonel Shapira: “In that conversation Elor did not mention any fear of a bomb, only his concern about the knife which was near the terrorist.”

The prosecution presented a video that showed a knife on the ground metres away from the prone assailant after he had been shot dead.

A Jewish settler and ambulance driver named Ofer Ohana then kicked the knife closer to the body. Someone can be heard on the video yelling: “He’s still alive, he’s still alive”.

Azaria’s defence attorneys have argued that their client shot the assailant because he feared not a knife but a bomb hidden under his clothing. There was no explosive device.

One of Azaria’s fellow soldiers, an active-duty sergeant who was identified only by his initials in the media, told the court: “There was a terrorist in a black coat who was alive and moving. From my point of view, he looked like a threat.” The soldier said there were fears of a bomb.

Top Israeli officers have testified on Azaria’s behalf.

Shmuel Zakai, a brigadier-general in the army reserves, said he watched the video and found Azaria’s manner calm and deliberate. “I assume that Azaria was concerned about an explosive device,” General Zakai testified.

Danny Biton, a major-general in the reserves, told the court: “If a soldier kills for no reason, he should go to jail. But in this case I disagree with the prosecution.”

He asked: “Should every soldier go to battle with a lawyer at his side?”

General Biton accused the prosecution of “castrating the army” by second-guessing a soldier’s action in the field. “There’s not one person in this trial who isn’t lying, and that’s what’s sad,” he said.

The three-judge panel will announce a verdict, though their deliberations could take weeks. If convicted, Azaria could face up to 20 years in prison.

The new defence minister, Avigdor Lieberman, said in September that Israel should support its soldiers “even if one of them makes a mistake”. Mr Lieberman added: “We are talking about 18 and 19-year-olds.”

Naftali Bennett, Israel’s education minister and the leader of the far-right Jewish Home party, offered a solution: If the court finds Azaria guilty, he should immediately be given a pardon.