TEL AVIV – Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Thursday reiterated his support for the pardoning of IDF soldier Elor Azaria.
In a case that rocked the nation here, Azaria was sentenced by an Israeli military court two days ago to 18 months in jail for a manslaughter conviction over the controversial shooting death of Palestinian terrorist Abdel Fatah al-Sharif on March 24, 2015.
Much of the international news media has presented the Azaria episode as a clear-cut case in which an Israeli soldier killed a “neutralized” Palestinian terrorist in cold blood out of anti-Palestinian sentiment. The details of the case, however, are more complicated.
Netanyahu made the comments about Azaria during a state visit to Australia. He contended that Azaria should be pardoned to protect the lives of Israeli soldiers who may hesitate to shoot while under threat out of fear of legal prosecution.
“Soldiers in dangerous situations could be deterred [from acting out of fear that they could be prosecuted], and therefore there must be understanding and progress toward a pardon,” Netanyahu said of the case.
The incident in question occurred on March 24, 2016, when Azaria, an inexperienced army combat medic, cocked his gun and killed al-Sharif, a Palestinian terrorist who was shot after he stabbed an Israeli soldier and was lying on the ground supposedly neutralized.
Azaria’s case went viral when the far-left, anti-Israeli military B’Tselem organization captured part of the incident on video and posted it on YouTube under the title, “Extrajudicial killing in broad daylight, Hebron, March 2016.”
Here are six key details of the case, as previously outlined by this reporter:
1 – Azaria said that he heard someone shout that al-Sharif might be wearing an explosive device.
Azaria reportedly claimed that he made the decision to shoot al-Sharif “in a fraction of a second” for fear the terrorist could detonate a suicide vest. He testified that he heard someone say, “Be careful, he has a bomb,” and that he fired “one bullet at his head to save the lives of the people at the scene.”
“The moment I identified the danger, I acted,” Azaria further testified. “In the field, one second you’re alive and the next second you’re dead.”
In her extensive ruling, the presiding judge in the case, Col. Maya Heller, did not accept that timeline in part because no one can be heard shouting about the explosive device in the video, which begins a full minute and fifty seconds before Azaria shot al-Sharif. Still, a civilian was identified by other witnesses as having shouted about the possibility of explosives; yet the timeline is unclear since Azaria’s lawyers did not bring that civilian to testify. Also, there are many muffled voices on the video and it isn’t clear what was being said.
Heller did question why Azaria cannot be seen on the video warning nearby soldiers of the danger of explosives if he thought they were at immediate risk. At the same time, other military personnel at the scene as well as military experts here testified on behalf of Azaria, stating that he was justified in believing al-Sharif could have been carrying explosives and should have been viewed as a continued threat.
2 – Al-Sharif was wearing a coat in mild weather.
“I was concerned because the terrorist was dressed strangely, in a furry, big, thick black coat,” Azaria told the court.
The weather in Hebron that day was between 63.3-66.9 degrees Fahrenheit, according to weather reports. When the sun is out, it can feel even hotter. Al-Sharif was wearing a coat, which could have been used to hide an explosive device. IDF soldiers and security personnel here are trained to be on the lookout for suspicious individuals wearing jackets or coats in warm weather. Al-Sharif had already stabbed a soldier so his terrorist motivations were not in question.
Still, the temperature that day cannot be considered undisputedly hot. Most civilians in the video can be seen in short sleeves, while another civilian is seen wearing a jacket. The IDF soldiers were wearing their required jackets.
3 – There was a dispute about whether the terrorist was alive when Azaria killed him.
Although the court ruled in favor of the prosecution, forensic experts testified that al-Sharif may have already been mortally wounded when he was shot after stabbing an Israeli soldier.
The Jerusalem Post summarized the dispute thusly:
The dispute is over whether these wounds led to his death or made his death inevitable, or whether Sharif would have survived had Azaria not shot him in the head. Azaria can be convicted only if the court rules that his shot to the head was what killed Sharif.
One forensics expert, Dr. Yehuda Hiss, testified for the defense and raised questions about the autopsy carried out by Dr. Hadas Gips, who was not allowed to examine the body for 10 days due to a dispute with al-Sharif’s family.
JPost further reported:
Hiss criticized Gips’ analysis as being contradicted by medical journals on what was likely to happen with Sharif’s injuries from his earlier wounds. He said that scans of Sharif’s wounds showed that, due to his original injuries, air that was traveling from the lungs to the heart could have caused immediate death or was about to cause his death.
He accused Gips of not performing all necessary aspects of an autopsy, listing other actions he would have taken had he performed the autopsy.
In contrast, Gips had said that such a theory for leading to Sharif’s death was unlikely and unreasonable, and that there were clear signs in Sharif’s body that he was alive up until the point that Azaria essentially blew his brains out.
4 – Azaria operated in a highly tense atmosphere.
The incident took place in the midst of the Palestinian “wave of terror” of stabbings, shootings and car-rammings and IDF soldiers are one of the main targets. Hebron is particularly tense and had been the scene of multiple terrorist attacks targeting soldiers and civilians.
5 – There is concern by some that Azaria’s case might have been used for political purposes.
International human rights organizations routinely condemn Israel for anti-terror activities while largely remaining silent about the use of human shields by Palestinian terrorists and the Palestinian Authority’s own direct involvement in terrorist activity and anti-Semitic incitement. Still, the left in Israel has for months waged a campaign that Azaria’s case must be used to send a message to the world that the Jewish state does not tolerate “mistreatment” of Palestinians by IDF soldiers. Supporters of Azaria are concerned that his trial may have been colored by those concerns, which were also expressed by some senior defense officials here.
6 – There are disputes about what Azaria said following the shooting.
A witness, identified in court documents only as T., claimed that Azaria told him right after the shooting something to the effect that “they stabbed my friend, they wanted to kill him, so he also deserves to die.”
T. was quoted in court documents as saying, “He was still under pressure, and I think that even he didn’t really understand the gravity of his action. He said something like they stabbed my friend and tried to kill him, so he also deserved to die. … I think that Elor told the company commander [Maj. Tom Ne’eman] the same thing that he said to me, that they stabbed his friend and tried to kill him, which is why the terrorist deserved to die.”
The ruling of the presiding judge lent considerable weight to those alleged remarks, even though T. was paraphrasing Azaria’s statement.
Haaretz reported on the dispute about Azaria’s alleged statement:
When first interrogated, Azaria denied that the exchange with T. had ever taken place. When the military police investigators proposed a confrontation with T., he responded somewhat differently. At the advice of his lawyer, he asked to read T.’s testimony and only then to decide whether to confront T. or not. Azaria then claimed that there was only one thing he was prepared to challenge T. on, which was that he hadn’t spoken to T. before the shooting. But in court, Azaria once again claimed that he didn’t recall any conversation with T. at all. When Azaria was asked if he had shot Sharif out of revenge, he chose to answer in a roundabout and evasive way, the judges wrote.
Aaron Klein is Breitbart’s Jerusalem bureau chief and senior investigative reporter. He is a New York Times bestselling author and hosts the popular weekend talk radio program, “Aaron Klein Investigative Radio.” Follow him on Twitter @AaronKleinShow. Follow him on Facebook.