Hebron shooting soldier denies manslaughter charge

IDF sergeant Elor Azaria’s lawyers say he acted in order to save lives; Liberman says he won’t interfere in trial

Stuart Winer is a breaking news editor at The Times of Israel.

IDF Sgt. Elor Azaria, accused of killing a disarmed Palestinian attacker in Hebron, during a hearing at Jaffa Military Court, May 9, 2016. (Flash90)
IDF Sgt. Elor Azaria, accused of killing a disarmed Palestinian attacker in Hebron, during a hearing at Jaffa Military Court, May 9, 2016. (Flash90)

An IDF soldier accused of killing an incapacitated Palestinian terrorist denied charges lodged against him on Monday, pleading not guilty to manslaughter for shooting a disarmed and seriously wounded terrorist in the wake of a knife attack.

Attorneys representing IDF sergeant Elor Azaria told Jaffa Military Court their client felt there was a real and immediate threat to himself and other soldiers on the scene that the terrorist would carry out a suicide bombing.

Azaria acted in self-defense, his attorneys contended, and claimed that the military prosecutor was engaging in selective enforcement by pursuing the case.

“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 said. “He didn’t see another possible way to save his and their lives.” His counsel said he acknowledged that it’s possible he caused Abdel Fattah al-Sharif’s death, but he certainly neutralized any suspected threat in so doing.

Avigdor Liberman — slated to become defense minister under the terms of a coalition deal being worked out between his party and the government — who has been strident in his support for Azaria, said he doesn’t plan to use his authority to intervene in the trial, saying the military’s courts should be allowed to operate unimpeded “and we will respect every outcome, every decision of the military court.”

In April, the Jaffa court indicted Azaria for manslaughter and inappropriate military conduct for shooting and killing Sharif on March 24, moments after Sharif participated in a stabbing attack against Israeli soldiers in the West Bank city of Hebron.

Sharif and another assailant stabbed and wounded one soldier before troops opened fire on them, wounding Sharif and killing the second attacker.

Graphic footage from the scene showed a wounded 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.

“The defendant imagined a situation in which, in light of the circumstances, the terrorist was carrying on himself an explosive belt and knife as part of an integrated attack and his movements were intended to activate the belt on his body,” attorneys claimed and noted that Azaria had been warned of just such a possibility during military briefings.

Although Azaria admits shooting the moving terrorist, his defense attorneys indicated they may reexamine pathology reports that showed Sharif was already seriously wounded in the lungs and groin from the previous shots fired at 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.

One of Azaria’s defense attorneys, Ilan Katz, criticized Ya’alon for his public comments about the case.

“We have claimed right from the start of the process there were inappropriate statements by the outgoing defense minister and those statement caused a mixing and erosion of the political system in the legal process.”

Ya’alon resigned last week from his office and from politics after it emerged that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had offered his portfolio to Yisrael Beytenu party leader Liberman in a coalition-building move.

On Sunday Col. Maya Heller removed Lt. Col. Yogev Yifrah from the three-judge panel due to his prior acquaintance with a witness slated to testify in the proceedings. Yifrah is acquainted with Col. Yariv Ben-Ezra, commander of the IDF’s Hebron Brigade, to which Sgt. Azaria belongs.

Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.

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