The High Court of Justice has agreed to review a proposed plea deal in which a soldier would be sentenced to three months of service work and no prison time for shooting dead a Palestinian man without just cause.
Justice Noam Sohlberg agreed to hear the case following a petition from the family of the slain Palestinian man, Ahmad Manasrah, who railed against the agreement as entirely insufficient given the severity of the crime.
Under the proposed agreement, the soldier would plead guilty to the military’s equivalent of negligent homicide and would be sentenced to three months of unpaid military service, probation and a demotion to private. The soldier would also be found not guilty for the shooting of another Palestinian man, Alaa Ghayadah, whom Manasrah had stopped to help after he was shot by the soldier.
“This deal is not okay, why didn’t they give him 20 years? My boy went to help someone and [the soldier] killed him,” Manasrah’s father Jamal told the Haaretz daily when the plea deal was first announced last month.
On March 20, 2019, the soldier — whose name has not been released — was stationed at a fortified pillbox post along the road near the Efrat settlement in the central West Bank.
The Ghayadah family — father Alaa, 38; mother Maysaa, 34 and two daughters, 5 and 8 — were traveling on the road in their car and entered into a dispute with another vehicle. Alaa pulled over near the pillbox at approximately 9 p.m. and attempted to flag down the other car, which sped on.
According to the Israel Defense Forces, the soldier “thought [Ghayadah] was throwing rocks and endangering Israeli cars traveling along the roadway” and opened fire, shooting Ghayadah in the stomach.
Manasrah, who was in a car with three other people on their way home from a wedding in nearby Bethlehem, saw Alaa’s wife calling for help and pulled over. The other three people in the car helped Alaa into the vehicle and drove him to the hospital to treat him, while Manasrah stayed behind to help the rest of the Ghayadah family get out of the area safely, according to testimony given to the left-wing B’Tselem human rights group.
“He tried to start the car, but the engine wouldn’t start. So he got out. As soon as he got out, shots rang out again. I was confused and very frightened. My two little girls also started screaming and one of them threw up,” Maysaa Ghayadah told the organization’s researcher.
According to the IDF, the soldier had mistaken the 22-year-old Manasrah for Alaa Ghayadah and had again opened fire, continuing to shoot after Manasrah fled.
“The soldier continued to shoot even after the man had left the area. The Palestinian was injured by the gunfire and died of his wounds,” the military said, citing the indictment against the serviceman.
One of the other three people from Manasrah’s car recalled hearing gunshots as they drove away from the scene with Ghayadah.
“I remember that after we put the injured guy in our car, we heard shooting. At first there were maybe two shots, and then a few more,” the man said, speaking on condition of anonymity, only identifying by his first initial, A.
According to attorney Shlomo Lecker, who represented Manasrah’s family during the proceedings, Manasrah was shot three times.
In its statement, the IDF said that troops stationed in that area had been warned earlier that day about the possibility that a terror attack would be committed in their region, apparently indicating that this may have been a factor in the soldier’s actions.
Military investigators also found that the soldier and other members of his unit attempted to obstruct the investigation by deleting messages they had sent one another about the incident.
“During the process of deciding what charges would be filed and what the accepted punishment would be, the complicated evidentiary and legal considerations [in the case], the salient operational circumstances of the incident, and the soldier’s willingness to take responsibility were considered,” the IDF said.
The plea deal, which was announced on August 15, was subject to approval from a military court.
We’ll see what three High Court of Justice judges think
After the details of the agreement were released, Lecker petitioned the High Court of Justice to intervene and review the case, including both an examination of the specific conditions of the plea deal and the broader decision to not include the initial unnecessary shooting of Ghayadah in the agreement.
Sohlberg accepted the petition and said the case would be heard before three judges. The military court will not rule on the plea deal until the High Court renders its ruling on the matter.
“After much effort, I succeeded in bringing the subject to a hearing before the High Court of Justice. We’ll see what three High Court judges think,” Lecker wrote in a public Facebook post about the issue.
Human rights groups in Israel often criticize the military for failing to sufficiently hold troops accountable for crimes committed against Palestinians.
This came to the fore in 2017 when a soldier, Elor Azaria, was sentenced to 18 months in prison after being found guilty of manslaughter for the 2016 killing of a wounded Palestinian assailant roughly 11 minutes after he’d already been shot and subdued. That 18-month sentence was later commuted by former IDF chief of staff Gadi Eisenkot, and Azaria was released from prison after just less than nine months in prison.