The brigade commander of a soldier on trial for killing an incapacitated Palestinian stabber in March told a military court Wednesday that he saw no justification for the shooting, and rejected the soldier’s claim that the troops were concerned the attacker may have been carrying a bomb.
Colonel Yariv Ben Ezra, outgoing commander of Sgt. Elor Azaria’s brigade, wasn’t at the scene of the March 24 incident. Abed al-Fattah Yusri al-Sharif stabbed an IDF soldier near Hebron and was shot and incapacitated. Several minutes later, video from the scene showed, when Sharif was lying on the ground barely moving, Azaria approached him, cocked his weapon, and shot him in the head.
A second assailant, Ramzi Aziz al-Qasrawi, was shot and killed earlier as soldiers attempted to thwart the attack.
Azaria was indicted for manslaughter and inappropriate military conduct in the Jaffa Military Court on April 18.
Ben Ezra told the court that contrary to Azaria’s claims, he found no reason to suspect Sharif was armed with explosives.
“During the entire first phase a claim to that effect never reached me,” Ben Ezra said. “The first time that this concern was raised was in the afternoon, through the media, when the incident was publicized.”
It never came up when he was at the scene or on the way there, he said.
Azaria’s attorneys claim he acted in self-defense, citing the possibility that the wounded Sharif had been wearing an explosive belt that he could have detonated.
The prosecution did not specifically address that claim last month, but has brushed it off as unlikely, as Sharif’s body had already been searched and because shooting toward an explosive device while other soldiers are standing nearby is not army protocol in such a situation. Azaria’s lawyers also claimed their client shot Sharif out of fear that the Palestinian man, who had already attacked two soldiers, would use his knife — which was several meters away from him when Azaria shot him — to attack more people.
Ben Ezra told the military tribunal that he didn’t consider the shooting justified. “Also in light of the investigation and initial debriefing in the field, and as all these details came together during the day, my assessment is that the shooting wasn’t justified,” he said.
“Because the shooting happened in a situation in which, to my understanding, there was no threat to life, and as I watched the film later I understood this better. Considering the behavior of the people at the scene of the incident, in light of the conversation and in light of the investigation we did — as I see it there was no threat to life at that point,” Ben Ezra added.
Video footage released by the prosecution in June as testimony began in the army’s case against Azaria appeared to show an ambulance driver at the scene moving a knife closer to the attacker’s body after the fact, possibly in an attempt to manufacture a case for self-defense.
“I kicked the knife at the scene to bring it closer so that it didn’t tumble down the hill,” Ofer Ohana said in court Tuesday.
“The accused acted in a split second to neutralize the terrorist and prevent injury to himself and his companions who were near the terrorist,” the defense team had said in May.
The footage released in June, which shows the knife was several meters away from Sharif at the time of the shooting, appears to further cast doubt on that assertion.
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“There’s a claim that the terrorist moved his hand in the direction of the knife that was near his hand — we will show that this claim is a false one,” chief prosecutor Lt. Col. Nadav Weissman told the Jaffa Military Court in June.
One of the Azaria’s defense attorneys, Ilan Katz, dismissed the video of the knife being moved as irrelevant because it recorded events after the actual shooting.
“The video clip of the kicking of the knife is not relevant, because it happened after the incident itself,” he said. “The soldier has been confronted with the video clips, and as the trial progresses we will prove the fact that this was not manslaughter.”
During Tuesday’s hearing, Charlie Azaria, the soldier’s father, burst into tears and accused the army’s judicial authorities of corruption.
“Were these officers even in Hebron?” Charlie Azaria demanded. “They received orders from above. They are framing him. Someone is pulling the strings.”
He also said that officials are “trying with all their might to convict my son,” Channel 2 reported.
Azaria’s aunt also blamed the IDF for her nephew’s predicament, saying it was the army that “gave him a weapon and instructed him.”
The case has sparked much controversy and inflamed political tensions in Israel. Despite strong condemnation of Azaria’s actions by top military brass, including former defense minister Moshe Ya’alon and IDF chief of staff Gadi Eisenkot, far-right supporters and some politicians have accused the defense establishment of abandoning one of its own.
Newly installed Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman initially came out strongly in support of Azaria, but before entering his post promised not to interfere in the trial.