10 months after shooting that divided Israel, verdict due in Azaria trial
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10 months after shooting that divided Israel, verdict due in Azaria trial

Security tight at IDF HQ in Tel Aviv as military court set to rule in explosive case of IDF sergeant who killed incapacitated Palestinian assailant

Elior Azaria, the Israeli soldier who shot a Palestinian terrorist in Hebron arrives to the court room before the announcement of his verdict, January 4, 2017 (Miriam Alster/Flash90)
Elior Azaria, the Israeli soldier who shot a Palestinian terrorist in Hebron arrives to the court room before the announcement of his verdict, January 4, 2017 (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

The nearly year-long trial of an IDF soldier accused of manslaughter for shooting an incapacitated Palestinian assailant last March will conclude Wednesday morning when the military tribunal hearing the case hands down its verdict.

The case of Sgt. Elor Azaria, 19, has deeply divided the country, with politicians and current and former army generals alternately supporting and condemning the soldier’s actions. Many of the army’s top brass, as well as former defense minister Moshe Ya’alon, have railed against Azaria’s “unethical” decision to shoot the assailant, Abdel Fattah al-Sharif, in the head nearly 15 minutes after the latter was shot and wounded as he attempted to stab an IDF soldier in Hebron.

Right-wing politicians and hundreds of Azaria’s supporters have insisted he was being treated unfairly by left-wing elites in the army and media.

The verdict was set to be given at 10 a.m. at the army’s Kirya headquarters, a change of venue from the Jaffa Military Court’s usual meeting place in the city’s south. The change is believed to have been made last week in a bid to keep protesters and media out of the courtroom.

On Wednesday morning, a few dozen protesters gathered outside the Kirya, holding a sign that read, “People of Israel do not abandon a soldier in the battlefield.”

The last day of the trial will be closed to the general public, and no video or audio feed from the courtroom is being provided.

Security has been bolstered around the Kirya base in expectation of possible protests if Azaria is convicted. Some 350 police officers were stationed around the base on Wednesday morning.

Thousands rallied for Azaria’s release following his indictment in April, and his family have waged a fierce campaign against the trial and raised hundreds of thousands of shekels to cover legal costs.

IDF soldier Elor Azaria at a military court hearing in Jaffa, August 30, 2016. (Miriam Alster/Flash90/JTA)
IDF soldier Elor Azaria at a military court hearing in Jaffa, August 30, 2016. (Miriam Alster/Flash90/JTA)

Azaria was filmed shooting al-Sharif on March 24, 2016. The footage, which was published online shortly after the incident by the left-wing advocacy group B’Tselem, sparked an intense debate in Israel about military discipline and ethics in the midst of a wave of Palestinian terror attacks that began in September 2015.

Military prosecutors at first sought murder charges against Azaria, but the difficulty of proving the soldier’s intent led to a reduced indictment for manslaughter. According to prosecutors, Azaria’s actions explicitly contravened the IDF’s rules of engagement, which stipulate, in accordance with Israeli law, that deadly force cannot be used once the assailant no longer poses an immediate threat.

Azaria’s defense attorneys have argued that their client believed that al-Sharif still posed a threat to himself and his fellow soldiers, suspecting he may have been rigged with explosives.

Since his April 18 indictment, media attention has been intense, focusing on the testimony provided by fellow IDF soldiers and officers throughout the trial.

On Tuesday, IDF Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Gadi Eisenkot alluded to the case, rejecting the campaign slogan of Azaria’s supporters that depicted him as “the child of us all.”

An IDF soldier loading his weapon before he appears to shoot an disarmed, wounded Palestinian assailant in the head following a stabbing attack in Hebron on March 24, 2016. (Screen capture: B'Tselem)
An IDF soldier loading his weapon before he appears to shoot an disarmed, wounded Palestinian assailant in the head following a stabbing attack in Hebron on March 24, 2016. (Screen capture: B’Tselem)

“He is not our child…. He is a warrior, a soldier, who must dedicate his life to carry out the tasks we give him. We cannot be confused about this.”

Speaking at a conference at the Interdisciplinary Center Herzliya, Eisenkot added: “This confusion in the Israeli discourse is a discourse that undermines the most fundamental values that we look for in our soldiers.”

The army’s live-fire rules in the West Bank, he said, “have not changed in a decade.”

Ahead of Wednesday’s verdict, one left-wing Israeli advocacy group on Tuesday criticized what it called an “exceptionally low” prosecution rate by the IDF in cases of alleged violence by soldiers against Palestinians.

The report by Yesh Din, a watchdog that is often critical of the military, claimed the army opened 186 criminal investigations into suspected offenses against Palestinians in 2015, but just four of those investigations yielded indictments. The group said the 2015 figures, based on official army data, were the most recent available.

The report said that of 76 Palestinians killed in clashes with soldiers in the West Bank in 2015, most of them during the wave of violence in the final weeks of the year, only 21 deaths generated investigations.

“The fact that in 55 incidents no criminal investigation was considered necessary raises doubts about the implementation of Israel’s declared policy on investigating civilian fatalities,” the report said. It said the data signaled an “inability and unwillingness” to address unlawful conduct.

The IDF did not respond to requests for comment.

Agencies contributed to this report.

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