The platoon commander of an IDF soldier facing manslaughter charges for killing a disarmed and seriously injured Palestinian attacker testified at the Jaffa Military Court on Monday that there was real concern the Palestinian was wearing an explosive belt.
The officer, whose name was withheld from publication, was called as a defense witness in the trial of Sgt. Elor Azaria, who on March 24 shot dead Abdel Fattah al-Sharif in the West Bank city of Hebron, nearly 15 minutes after the latter was shot and wounded by soldiers he had tried to stab.
Azaria has been charged with manslaughter. His main defense claim has been that he shot Sharif because he saw him moving and feared that the Palestinian was wearing an explosive belt and was trying to set it off, endangering troops in the area.
Sharif was not found to have been carrying explosives, and Azaria’s company commander Tom Na’aman has testified that there was no concern that Sharif had a bomb.
In his testimony, the officer contradicted Na’aman and said he was suspicious because Sharif was wearing a jacket on a warm day.
“That seemed to me unusual and strange,” he said. “We are constantly briefed that the knife is just the start, and the day will come when there will be something bigger, a shooting incident, a bomb, a bigger terror incident.”
The officer added that he heard a civilian at the scene shout that there was a suspicion of a bomb, making him even more cautious.
“That changed it to a more-than-reasonable suspicion,” he said and claimed that he told Na’aman about the danger of explosives.
“You could say that he ignored what I said, didn’t take responsibility,” he said and further criticized Na’aman for his overall handling of the event.
The incident began when Sharif, and another Palestinian Ramzi Aziz al-Qasrawi, attacked two Israeli soldiers with knives, stabbing one of them. The other soldier opened fire, killing al-Qasrawi and seriously injuring Sharif.
“When there are terrorists alive in the field, there’s danger,” the officer said and recalled that because Sharif was moving a little bit, he still posed a danger, and that for that reason he posted a soldier — not Azaria — to stand watch over him.
However, prosecution attorneys challenged the officer that, during a military police investigation in the wake of the shooting, he did not mention that he had warned the company commander or that he put a soldier on guard over the attacker.
The prosecution also probed him over the fact that he approached Sharif and turned him over with his foot, contradicting his claim that he feared he was wearing an explosive belt.
Asked why he was so close to the attacker, as was the company commander, if he feared there as a bomb, the officer responded that “in real time, you don’t see things like that. Just because I didn’t think about the threat to life at that moment doesn’t mean that it didn’t exist.”
“You can claim I acted in an unprofessional manner, not well enough,” the officer conceded.
Among the witnesses who are set to give testimony backing Azaria’s shooting of Sharif are three former senior IDF officers: Brigadier General (res.) Shmuel Zakai, Major General (res.) Dan Biton and Major General (res.) Uzi Dayan.
The killing of Sharif, which was caught on film, made international headlines, and Azaria’s subsequent trial has inflamed political tensions in Israel, with far-right supporters and some politicians accusing the defense establishment of abandoning one of its own.
Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.