Sgt. Elor Azaria, the Israeli soldier who is charged with manslaughter for shooting and killing an already wounded Palestinian Authority Arab terrorist in Chevron in March, began testifying this week at the military court in Jaffa. Azaria offered his version of the incident, which has been under extensive media scrutiny, and criticized the country’s leaders for condemning his actions and for not supporting him.
“The prime minister, defense minister and chief of staff all condemned my actions before hearing what I had to say,” charged Azaria. “I immediately lost faith in them. I feel like a scapegoat that they picked to clear the army’s name.”
Azaria’s testimony follows that of relevant state witnesses, including IDF soldiers and officers, members of the IDF Criminal Investigations Department, and Imad Abu-Shamsiya, a photographer for the NGO B’Tselem. Abu-Shamsiya filmed Azaria shooting and killing the wounded terrorist, who had stabbed and injured another IDF soldier several minutes earlier. The video quickly circulated and provoked outrage, causing the military to suspend Azaria.
“I am an army medic so I was not present at most military briefings,” testified 20-year-old Azaria. “I felt I was assigned tasks beyond my capabilities. I was given serious responsibilities without adequate sleep.”
Azaria’s main line of defense is that he shot the wounded Arab terrorist, Abdul Fatah al-Sharif, due to fear that al-Sharif was wearing an explosive vest and that the shooting was thus carried out in self-defense.
“I rushed to the scene and was told that there had been an attack and that someone was stabbed, my first incident with a real casualty,” Azaria testified in court. “I treated the wounded soldier while people started yelling, ‘he has an explosive device,’ and I saw that the terrorist had a big black coat that looked like he was hiding something. We were warned about the possibility of a ‘high-level attack,’ and I understood that this was it.”
“I saw that the terrorist was moving his hand toward the knife and it looked suspicious to me,” said Azaria. “I had no way to know for certain and felt that everyone at the scene was in danger. I took my weapon, loaded it, and saw that the people around me were complacent. I walked between them, screamed ‘move,’ and fired one bullet towards the terrorist’s head. I neutralized him to save the lives of everyone at the scene. I had a dilemma before pulling the trigger, but felt I had no choice.”
“After the shooting, I told my company commander Tom Na’aman that I had fired the shot,” he added. “He shouted at me, saying ‘what are you doing? Are you nuts?’ And then he slapped me twice. It was the first time I had shot a person and I was under stress. I did not understand why he reacted like that in front of everyone instead of trying to calm me down.”
“I was shocked by the incident itself and also by my commander. I lost faith in him,” testified Azaria. “The army had told us it would take care of us like a parent, but my commander turned on me. It was all lies.”
The prosecution alleges that Azaria shot a terrorist that posed no threat. “The soldier acted against the rules of engagement and without operational justification,” the military prosecution said. “The terrorist al-Sharif was lying on the ground, did not attack again, and did not pose an immediate threat to the defendant or to the civilians and soldiers who were at the scene. In his actions, the defendant caused the unlawful death of the terrorist.”
The case is highly controversial in Israel, and many demonstrations have been held in support of Azaria in recent months, calling him a “hero” and protesting the decision to charge him with manslaughter. Some right-wing politicians similarly denounced the trial, including MK Avigdor Liberman, who personally attended a protest outside the Jaffa court before he was appointed defense minister, and MK Oren Hazan (Likud) who attended the court session on Sunday.
“I am now in court, hearing Elor’s testimony and wondering how we have reached the point where a combat soldier is being tried for killing Satan disguised as a terrorist while the Hamas terrorists are laughing at us all,” wrote MK Hazan on Twitter.
“I call upon Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman, who had supported Elor from the beginning, to stick to his original position and to do everything to end this farce,” added Hazan.
TPS / Tazpit News Agency – Michael Bachner