Hebron soldier insists stabber was a threat, says commanders were complacent

Elor Azaria, on trial for killing incapacitated Palestinian attacker, says he was afraid there was a bomb that would cause ‘unimaginable’ casualties

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

Sgt. Elor Azaria, the IDF soldier who shot an incapacitated Palestinian terrorist in Hebron, seen at the military court in Jaffa, July 24, 2016. (Flash90)
Sgt. Elor Azaria, the IDF soldier who shot an incapacitated Palestinian terrorist in Hebron, seen at the military court in Jaffa, July 24, 2016. (Flash90)

The Israeli soldier facing manslaughter charges for killing an incapacitated Palestinian stabber gave his testimony Sunday at the Jaffa Military Court, accusing his commanders of complacency at the scene of the attack.

Sgt. Elor Azaria described the events of March 24, when he was filmed shooting Palestinian assailant Abdel Fattah al-Sharif in the head, nearly 15 minutes after Sharif was shot by soldiers when he attempted to stab them in Hebron.

An IDF soldier was moderately wounded in the attack, during the course of which a second Palestinian assailant was shot and killed.

Azaria was arrested by the Military Police later in the day, and was indicted on manslaughter charges on April 18.

In his first day on the stand Azaria told the court it was the first time he was required to put his training as a medic into practice in an operational situation. Arriving at the scene, he said, he found the soldier injured in the initial stabbing attack “covered in blood.”

After attending to the wounded soldier he turned his attention to the scene around him.

“People thought that the incident was over,” he said. “I didn’t understand why they were continuing to walk around like that, when there are warning shouts, even when they know that there is a danger of a serious attack, a compound attack.

“When you are talking about an attack like that, it can be a compound incident,” he continued. “That is, not only stabbings but also explosive devices and shooting.”

During briefings before the incident the soldiers had been warned that intelligence information indicated a “serious attack” was being planned by Palestinians in Hebron, he said.

“Suddenly there was shouting at the scene, I don’t know who, ‘Careful! He has a bomb on him, nobody touch him until the bomb squad arrives. He’s apparently booby-trapped; look he’s moving, don’t let him get up and attack us, somebody do something,'” Azaria said.

“I can see that [Sharif] has on a puffy black coat, as though he is hiding a flak jacket there, certainly much more than the second terrorist. I can see the knife near him,” he recalled. “I saw the terrorist moving his hands. In my head I saw pictures of that same warning of an attack. I saw him moving again and understood that it was the same serious incident that they warned us about.”

At that point he chose to take matters into his own hands, Azaria claimed, because he was worried the attacker would strike again.

Reaching for his weapon, he said, he cocked the rifle at 60 degrees — an IDF regulation practice — and then took aim while shouting, “Move, move, get away.”

“In that way, at a range of seven to ten meters, I shot the terrorist with one bullet to the head in order to neutralize him and save the people at the scene. I thought he might be about to press a button and blow himself up and the number of injuries would be unimaginable,” he said.

Azaria sharply criticized commanders, and in particular his company commander, Tom Na’aman, claiming that the scene was not under control, with civilians and news camera crews trying to get a closer look at the attackers.

“The commanders were complacent, didn’t pay attention to the terrorist. The company commander stood over [Sharif] talking on the radio, not alert to the situation, to what was happening at the scene, to the shouts,” he said. “From my point of view, they weren’t acting as expected from a commander.”

Maj. Tom Na'aman, commanding officer of Elor Azaria, arrives for a court hearing at the Jaffa Military Court, June 16, 2016. (Flash90)
Maj. Tom Na’aman, commanding officer of Elor Azaria, arrives for a court hearing at the Jaffa Military Court, June 16, 2016. (Flash90)

Last month Na’aman provided damning testimony against Azaria, saying Sharif posed no threat and that after the shooting him, Azaria told Na’aman: “This terrorist was alive and he had to die.”

Azaria told the court earlier Sunday that after he fired the shot Na’aman shouted at him and slapped his face twice.

At the start of his testimony Sunday morning, Azaria described his motivation in wanting to join a combat unit to serve his country and how, after joining the Kfir Brigade infantry unit, he was selected for additional training to become a combat medic.

His testimony is scheduled to last three days. It comes after the prosecution finished calling its witnesses to the stand, including Azaria’s commander and a B’Tselem activist who filmed the incident.

On Sunday, he was being questioned by his own attorneys, followed in the next two days by cross-examination by prosecutors.

His defense has argued that Azaria had reason to believe that his life was in danger when he fired the single bullet into Sharif’s head.

Most of the testimonies heard thus far in the trial, including from Azaria’s company, battalion and brigade commanders, contradicted his defense.

Earlier this month, Azaria’s battalion commander, Lt. Col. David Shapira, testified that Azaria was an exemplary soldier until the incident, but that he believed Azaria had fired in order to exact revenge and not out of fear that he was in danger.

Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.

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