The president of Jaffa Military Court on Sunday recused one of the judges presiding over the trial of Elor Azaria, an Israel Defense Forces soldier accused of killing a disarmed and incapacitated Palestinian attacker in Hebron earlier this year.
Col. Maya Heller removed Lt. Col. Yogev Yifrah from the three-judge panel due to his prior acquaintance with one witnesses slated to testify in the proceedings, the Walla news website reported. Yifrah is acquainted with Col. Yariv Ben-Ezra, commander of the IDF’s Hebron Brigade to which Sgt. Azaria belongs.
According to the report, the trial will continue as planned after Heller appoints a replacement for Yifrah.
In April, the Jaffa court indicted Azaria for manslaughter and inappropriate military conduct for shooting and killing Abdel Fattah al-Sharif on March 24, moments after he participated in a stabbing attack against Israeli soldiers in the West Bank city of Hebron.
Al-Sharif and another assailant stabbed and wounded one soldier before troops opened fire on them, wounding al-Sharif and killing the second attacker.
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.”
However, according to the indictment that was read in open court for the first time during a May 8 hearing, Azaria did not believe al-Sharif posed an imminent threat when he shot him.
“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,” the indictment said. “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.”
That same day, new footage of the moments leading up to the shooting was released, appearing to corroborate the prosecution’s argument that al-Sharif did not pose a threat to the lives of the troops around him.
The video clip aired by Channel 2 on May 8 showed the black knife in question at least a meter away from the incapacitated assailant.
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.