The military appeals court on Wednesday began the third day of hearings on the sentencing of an Israeli soldier convicted in the shooting death of a wounded Palestinian terrorist as he lay on the ground.
Appearing before an expanded bench, military prosecutor Nadav Weisman argued for a heavier sentence for Elor Azaria, who was convicted of manslaughter and sentenced in February to 18 months in military jail.
At one point, Weisman said it had been proved that Azaria was a “liar,” to which Judge Zvi Segal responded, “You can choose more respectful words.”
Azaria’s father Charlie intervened, saying the words were hurtful.
“A man who acts innocently doesn’t lie and doesn’t need to lie,” Weisman shot back. “He doesn’t need to change versions five times.”
Azaria, 21, was convicted in the March 2016 shooting death of Abdel Fattah al-Sharif, who was lying on the ground wounded and disarmed minutes after he stabbed a soldier in the West Bank city of Hebron.
Azaria, a combat medic, was filmed shooting Sharif in the head several minutes after Sharif’s stabbing attack, which left one soldier lightly wounded.
Another stabber, Ramzi Aziz al-Qasrawi, was killed in the course of the attack.
In their original verdict, the judges found that Azaria was motivated by a desire for revenge, and not, as he claimed, by a fear that the prostrate Sharif still constituted a threat.
The case has bitterly divided Israel, with many, including Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, calling for Azaria to be pardoned.
Wednesday’s hearing began with Azaria’s defense lawyer Yoram Sheftel repeating the defense argument that Azaria fired in self-defense because he saw the terrorist move his arm and had a well-grounded fear that he was trying to reach a knife or set off an explosive device that may have been strapped to his body.
“This wasn’t a civilian walking down Allenby Street [in Tel Aviv] who fell on a banana. This was a man who Azaria thought was carrying an explosive device,” the Haaretz newspaper reported him saying in court.
Judge Zvi Segal said, “The question is whether there was ‘uncertainty about danger’ or ‘immediate danger.’ If there was uncertainty, there was time to do everything required before there was no choice but to fire.”
Military Appeals Court chief judge Doron Peles asked, “Did the appellant (Azaria) have the chance to shout out loud, ‘I think he’s booby trapped,’ instead of shooting?”
Sheftel: “No. He’s in eye contact with the terrorist for nine seconds. And during this period, the terrorist moves his arm, twice, he (Azaria) thinks he has a knife, and that’s why he said that he fired instinctively.”
Segal responded, “Now, the honorable gentleman recalls the knife. So shoot him in the arm! Neutralize his arm!”
Sheftel replied, “I did recall the knife. When he moved his arm it wasn’t only for a knife but also the explosive device.”
“So there was a mistake — he should have turned to the company commander and he didn’t do so. But manslaughter? What are we talking about?”
“Where will we get to if in operations like this, we start prosecuting soldiers because they shot to the head and not the arm, with a [suspected] explosive device?”
Beginning his appeal, military prosecutor Nadav Weisman insisted that Azaria had given changing versions of testimony and that his testimony contradicted objective facts on the ground.
Weisman said that the military court had previously rejected the claim that Azaria feared an explosive device.
To shouts of ridicule from court spectators, he went on, “Soldiers are allowed to shoot. They need and must fight our enemy — and they are backed up in every way.”
But, he said, “There’s a stage where a person goes beyond the realm of combat. It’s correct that he [the terrorist] tried to murder, but when he’s lying on the ground, bleeding from the chest, shot with six bullets….he [Azaria] went beyond the realm of combat.”
During the proceedings, Doron Peles warned the Azaria family to “stop disturbing and whispering,” saying, “it’s not the first time,” according to Haaretz’s account.