A 20-year-old IDF soldier, Sgt Elor Azaria, who was filmed shooting a wounded Palestinian terrorist after he had been disarmed, was today found guilty of manslaughter by an Israeli military court following a high-profile trial that deeply divided the country.
In the incident which occurred in the West Bank city of Hebron on the 24th March 2016, 21-year-old Palestinian Abdul Fatah al-Sharif and another 21-year-old Palestinian, Ramzi Aziz al-Qasrawi, stabbed and wounded an Israeli soldier before troops opened fire on them, wounding Sharif and killing Qasrawi. Footage of the scene several minutes later, shows Sharif alive and lying immobile after being disarmed. A soldier, identified as Sgt Azaria, is then seen fatally shooting Sharif from several metres away.
The video footage and subsequent trial of Azaria sparked an intense debate in Israel about military discipline and ethics in the midst of a wave of Palestinian terror attacks that began in September 2015. Central to the debate is the IDF Code of Ethics Core principles including the ‘Purity of Arms’, which underlines “the soldier shall make use of his weaponry and power only for the fulfillment of the mission and solely to the extent required”, and “he will maintain his humanity even in combat”.
The trial saw politicians and current and former army generals split in support and condemnation of the soldier’s actions. Many of the army’s top brass, as well as then-Defence Minister Moshe Ya’alon, had condemned the soldier’s “unethical” decision to shoot the assailant.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu stated at the time that “what happened in Hebron doesn’t represent the values of the IDF. The IDF expects its soldiers to behave level-headedly and in accordance with the rules of engagement”. The PM has subsequently indicated that the soldier should be pardoned by the President of Israel, Reuven Rivlin.
According to prosecutors, Azaria’s actions explicitly contravened the IDF’s rules of engagement, which stipulate, in accordance with Israeli law, that deadly force cannot be used once the assailant no longer poses an immediate threat.
In the lengthy, unanimous verdict, which was read for almost three hours, Judge Maya Heller described the circumstances of the shooting and summed up the indictment and defence. The judges concluded that Azaria’s testimony was “not credible,” that he had opened fire out of a desire for revenge, and that the shooting was “not justified”.
Dismissing one of the defence’s key arguments to the effect that the stabber was already dead when Azaria opened fire at close range, Judge Heller said: “We have adopted the conclusion that the terrorist’s death was caused by the shooting by Azaria”.
Citing testimony of Azaria’s commanding officer and a paramedic, who recalled that upon arriving at the scene minutes after the attack, Azaria had said Sharif “deserves to die,” Judge Heller said there was no indication Azaria felt threatened by the mortally wounded attacker, and that a member of the security forces had moved the knife away from the attacker minutes prior to the shooting.
Judge Heller added that the claim Azaria had reacted because Sharif was reaching for his knife was unacceptable, as video footage from the scene showed that the knife was out of reach from the assailant.
Judge Heller said: “There is no grounds for the claim of self-defence… Azaria’s shooting was unjustified”.
She added: “The fact that the man sprawled on the ground was a terrorist, who had just sought to take the lives of IDF soldiers at the scene, does not in itself justify disproportionate action”.
Azaria’s lawyers said they would appeal the verdict, while members of his family called the decision a “disgrace”. Outside the courtroom, scores of activists had demonstrated in support of Azaria, some of which clashed with police and border guards dispatched to maintain order.