A reserves soldier accused of shooting civilian Yuval Castleman to death while responding to a terror attack last week was released to house arrest on Tuesday evening.
The decision to free Staff Sgt. (res.) Aviad Frija was made after a military court judge noted problems with the strength of the prosecution’s evidence, according to the Ynet news site.
Frija was one of two off-duty troops who responded to a terror shooting at a Jerusalem bus stop on Thursday, opening fire on the two assailants but also at Castleman, an armed civilian who had also fired at the terrorists.
Footage from the scene showed that Frija shot Castleman after the latter had put his gun down and was holding his hands in the air. He was questioned under caution on Sunday and arrested the next day. He is suspected of having committed reckless homicide.
A lawyer representing the Castleman family expressed dismay over the decision.
“The fact is Yuval was shot to death while he was holding his hands up, had pushed away his gun, opened his jacket and took out his wallet to show that he had an Israeli ID, while yelling in Hebrew not to shoot,” the attorney said, demanding an “appropriate punishment.”
The second soldier involved in the incident, who opened fire and was injured, was also questioned under caution on Sunday.
Three other people were killed and five were injured in the attack. Castleman was driving on the other side of the street when the attack occurred; he stopped his car, crossed the road and rushed at the terrorists with his firearm and fired at them.
The soldiers, who arrived at the scene at around the same time, apparently mistook Castleman for a third assailant, and at least one, Frija, fired at him.
Graphic video from the scene showed Castleman throw away his gun, fall on his knees and raise his hands in the air while shouting, “Don’t shoot” as the soldiers approached him. He was then shot again.
According to additional details reported Sunday, Castleman also yelled at the soldiers until he collapsed, “Look at my ID, I am Jewish.”
סיכום פיגוע ירי הבוקר בירושלים:
2 מחבלים, אחים תושבי מזרח ירושלים, פתחו באש m-16 ואקדח לעבר עשרות אזרחים בתחנת אוטובוס בצומת גבעת שאול.
תגובה מיידית בירי של 2 חיילי צה"ל (בדרכם לעזה) ואזרח נוסף, חיסלו את המחבלים.
3 יהודים הי"ד נרצחו בפיגוע, 13 נפצעו מתוכם כמה קשה. pic.twitter.com/2ofl70cSMc
— יענקי כהן | Yanki Coen (@yankicoen) November 30, 2023
Speaking about the incident, IDF Chief of Staff Herzi Halevi said Tuesday that soldiers should not shoot at someone putting their hands up.
Halevi said the military appreciates Castleman’s “brave” action in taking down the Hamas gunmen. “This is truly heroism,” he said.
“At the same time, we emphasize the need to stick to the basic and required rules in complex situations like these, shooting in a civilian environment,” he added. “Do not shoot when the threat is lowered, and we do not shoot at those who put their hands up.”
Speaking to the right-wing Channel 14 network shortly after the attack, Frija said that “someone shouted ‘terrorist.’ The soldier next to me and I were lying down on the floor and then we went around behind the [bus] station. We realized [the terrorists] were behind us.
“Slowly we looked for them, we walked crouched behind the station, and then when we passed the station we suddenly saw them and then shot them,” Frija said. “There was a terrorist there and we shot him.”
Asked by the network if he confirmed the terrorists had been killed, Frija said “Yes, we shot until they fell.”
Frija’s lawyers, Col. (res,) Shlomi Tzipori and Col. (res.) Ran Cohen Rochberger, said in a statement to the media Monday that the videos showing the terror attack and fatal shooting “create a partial and false impression that does not reflect what was seen and heard from the direction of the soldier.
“The additional shooting carried out by the soldier and other people in the area toward the late Yuval must be examined according to all the circumstances and the situation that stood before the soldier’s eyes in real time,” the lawyers said.
“From where the soldier stood, from the sights he saw and the sounds he heard, the soldier was wholeheartedly convinced that he was firing at a terrorist who still posed a life-threatening danger to him and everyone around him. He had no intention of making a ‘confirmed kill’ and did not act in that way,” the statement said.
“Immediately after he saw that the person was hit and was lying [on the ground], he stopped shooting. After hearing the testimony of the soldier, we do not doubt that under these extremely unusual circumstances, the Military Advocate General will also reach the clear conclusion that, alongside the heavy sorrow for the terrible outcome, this is a tragic mistake that does not justify taking criminal measures against the soldier,” the lawyers added.
Following the Military Police investigation, the IDF will decide if criminal charges should be brought against Frija. IDF protocols do not allow soldiers to shoot someone who raises their hands in the air, and officials say the soldier’s conduct during the incident was not what was expected of him based on the norms and values of the military.
Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.