Court urges plea deal for soldier who killed disarmed stabber
Indictment read in open court as trial begins for Elor Azaria, who shot a wounded Palestinian assailant in Hebron on March 24
The Jaffa Military Court on Monday urged both sides in the trial of IDF Sgt. Elor Azaria, who faces manslaughter charges for shooting dead an incapacitated Palestinian attacker in Hebron on March 24, to seek a plea bargain in the case.
Azaria was accused Monday of unjustified killing and violating the army’s rules of engagement when he shot and killed Abdel Fattah al-Sharif, who a few minutes earlier had stabbed Israeli troops. Al-Sharif and another assailant stabbed and wounded one soldier before troops opened fire on them, wounding al-Sharif and killing the second attacker.
Azaria’s indictment was read in open court for the first time on Monday. It argues that Azaria did not believe al-Sharif posed an imminent threat when he shot him.
The defense team accepted the court’s suggestion that it sit down with the prosecution — presumably in order to discuss a plea deal . The three-judge panel ordered prosecutors to respond to the idea within a week.
According to the indictment, “The defendant cocked his firearm upwards, approached the terrorist and fired a single bullet at close range, while aiming at [al-Sharif’s] head, and struck him.
“He did that in contravention of the rules of engagement and without any operational justification, while the terrorist lay wounded on the ground, did not attempt a second attack and did not constitute an immediate and concrete threat to the defendant, the civilians or the soldiers at the scene.”
Graphic footage from the scene showed a wounded al-Sharif still alive minutes later, and then Azaria shooting him in the head. Azaria was arrested, with rights groups labeling his action a summary execution.
Immediately after the incident, the 19-year-old sergeant told military police that “when I looked at him I saw that he was moving his head, and his hand was within reach of the knife he used in the stabbing — the black knife. He moved his hand towards the knife.”
But a new video clip, aired by Channel 2 on Sunday, showed the black knife in question some two meters away from the incapacitated assailant, appearing to contradict those claims.
Azaria also claimed after the shooting that he suspected al-Sharif was carrying a bomb under his coat. But the new video showed that several other soldiers and paramedics at the scene were also wearing coats on that March morning in the mountainous southern West Bank.
While army prosecutors have said they have sufficient evidence to sustain the manslaughter charge, a military judge who oversaw initial hearings in the case suggested that there was room for doubt in the evidence.
The case hinges on Azaria’s motive, with the prosecution attempting to prove that Azaria knew that al-Sharif posed no harm.
The chief of staff of the Israel Defense Forces, Lt. Gen. Gadi Eisenkot, condemned the shooting in the days that followed the incident, saying that IDF soldiers receive the army’s support if they make mistakes in the heat of battle, but that Azaria’s actions appeared to be premeditated.
“We will not hesitate to prosecute soldiers and commanders who deviate from our operational and ethical standards,” Eisenkot said.
The prosecution is thought to be unlikely to agree to a plea bargain after Chief Military Advocate General Sharon Afek enlisted a prominent private sector attorney, Lt. Col. (res) Nadav Weisman, to join the prosecuting team.
The indictment also includes a charge of behavior unbecoming a soldier.
The court denied on Monday Azaria’s request to be released home for Independence Day, which begins Wednesday night.
The case has sparked much controversy and has inflamed political tensions in Israel. Despite strong condemnation of Azaria’s actions by top military brass, the defense minister and the chief of staff, far-right supporters and some politicians have accused the defense establishment of abandoning one of its own.
A group of some two dozen activists demonstrated outside the Jaffa Military Court Monday, holding placards that read, “Elor is the salt of the earth” and “Elor deserves a medal.”