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Hebron shooting incident

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Hebron shooting
Part of the Israeli–Palestinian conflict (2015–2016)
Date 24 March 2016
Deaths 2 (1 attacker shot before the incident)
Non-fatal injuries
1 (Israeli soldier wounded before the incident)
Victim Abdel Fattah al-Sharif
Perpetrator Elor Azaria
Verdict Found guilty
Convictions 18 months imprisonment, 12 months probation, rank demotion
Charges Manslaughter

The Hebron shooting incident occurred on March 24, 2016, in the Tel Rumeida neighborhood of Hebron, when Abdel Fattah al-Sharif, a Palestinian assailant who stabbed an Israeli soldier, was shot, wounded and "neutralized",[1] then was shot again in the head by Elor Azaria, an Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) soldier, as he lay wounded on the ground. This led to al-Sharif's death a few minutes later. Azaria was arrested and the Israeli Military Police opened an investigation against him for the charge of murder, but later reduced the charge to manslaughter.

The soldier's act sparked widespread public debate in Israel, that became a continuation of an already widespread debate over how one should implement the Rules of engagement orders in the wake of the wave of Palestinian political violence.

He was sentenced to 18 months imprisonment, 12 months probation, plus a demotion in rank.[2] He was released from prison after serving 9 months.[3]

Incident

Site of the shooting, several months before the incident

On 24 March 2016, two Palestinians armed with knives, Ramzi Aziz al-Tamimi al-Qasrawi and Abdel Fattah al-Sharif, approached an Israeli military post manned by soldiers of the Shimshon Battalion of the IDF's Kfir Brigade in the Tel Rumeida neighborhood of Hebron and stabbed an Israeli soldier in the hand and shoulder, moderately injuring him.[4] The soldiers opened fire, killing al-Qasrawi and seriously injuring al-Sharif.

A few minutes later, reinforcements arrived, including Elor Azaria, a medic from the battalion. Azaria approached the wounded al-Sharif and fatally shot him in the head while standing less than two meters away. [5][6] A video of Azaria killing al-Sharif was published by B'Tselem,[7] and went viral on Israeli social media, sparking controversy.[8]

Investigation and trial

Following the shooting, Azaria's company commander, Major Tom Naaman, reported it to the battalion commander, Lieutenant Colonel David Shapira, who in turn reported it to the commander of the Kfir Brigade, Colonel Guy Hazut. Four hours after the incident, an initial investigation was opened, and Azaria was suspended from duty. After the video was posted to social media, and after a report by Colonel Hazut to Chief Military Advocate General Sharon Afek, a military police investigation was opened, and Azaria was detained.[9] Azaria was initially treated as a murder suspect,[8] but on 31 March prosecutors told a court they were looking into manslaughter charges.[10] The initial investigation found that the shooting occurred three minutes after IDF soldiers shot and neutralized the knife-wielding assailants and pathologists ruled that his shot was responsible for the assailant's death and not his previous wounds.[7] An IDF investigation whose details were revealed on March 27 stated that the Azaria had said the assailant "needs to die" before killing him. At trial, a fellow unit member testified that this was said after the shooting.[11] In his testimony, Azaria denied he said that, and suggested other things he said may have been misinterpreted.[12] The investigation also said that fellow soldiers had tried to calm him.[13]

During a court hearing on 24 March, his attorney said he feared the assailant had an explosive vest hidden under his shirt. IDF officials rejected this, saying the assailants had already been checked for explosives, and he did not follow the procedures for such concerns before opening fire. During the investigation, he also claimed that the assailant tried to reach for a knife that was 'within reach' of him, while the documentation in the video showed the knife was a significant distance away from the assailant, who was critically injured.[14]

On 31 March, military judge Lt. Col. Ronen Shor ordered the shooter released from jail to open arrest at his base, the headquarters of the Kfir Brigade. The judge however stayed this decision till the next day as the prosecution which wanted his detention extended for a week, appealed against the decision. He was also barred from making any contact with the witness or carrying a gun.[15] The prosecution's appeal was rejected on 1 April, with the shooter being transferred to open arrest on his base. Further appeal hearing by a military appeals court was set on 5 April.[16] The military appeals court upheld the decision of the lower court on 5 April.[17]

On 3 April, it was reported that both the Israeli and Palestinian pathologist ruled that it was the bullet of the Kfir Brigade soldier who shot the wounded al-Sharif in Hebron and killed him.[18][19] It was also noted by the prosecution that the temperature during the incident was cold, debunking claims that wearing of a coat by Sharif made it suspicious that he might be wearing an explosive vest.[20] The military prosecution announced on 14 April that the soldier will be charged with manslaughter.[21] Azaria's identity had been kept under gag order which was lifted on 18 April following his indictment.[22] Vice News obtained a classified IDF document concerning the killing. The document described internal investigations concluding that Azaria had actually killed the Palestinian knifer because he felt that "he needs to die" since he was a terrorist. The report stated that both Palestinian assailants had already been checked by another soldier before Azaria's arrival at the scene. It also stated that he had changed his version of events during his questioning, stating that he shot the assailant because he felt that there was a threat to his life.[23]

The trial opened on 9 May in a Jaffa court and Azaria was charged with manslaughter and conduct unbecoming of a noncommissioned officer.[24] He denied the charge of manslaughter lodged against him during a hearing on May 23, pleading not guilty.[25] The body of Abdel al-Fattah al-Sharif was returned to his family for his funeral which was held on May 28, however Azaria's defence team demanded on 29 May for the body to be returned saying it hampered the legal proceedings in the case.[26][27]

IDF's lead investigator testified in court on 1 June that an ambulance driver Ofer Ohana who took many videos of the incident, had moved a knife thought to have been used in the earlier stabbing closer to al-Sharif and tampered with evidence to make it look like Azaria killed him in self-defence. The prosecution's video footage revealed that the knife was lying three-four metres away from the injured al-Sharif and was thus out of his reach both before and after the shooting. Ohana who was filming the incident stopped his video after the shooting, moved the knife and started the video again. The prosecution also showed additional footage which showed Azaria shaking hands with far-right activist Baruch Marzel. The lead investigator also stated that Azaria had sent a text message to his father where he said that he made sure that the injured al-Sharif was killed. The prosecution showed later footage which appeared to show Ohana kicking the knife towards al-Sharif after the shooting. Military prosecutors took a statement from Ohana and confiscated his phone after filing a warrant request in court.[28][29] According to testimonies by eyewitnesses, the second stabber was also executed with a shot to head while lying on the ground after being incapacitated.[30] A forensics expert in testifying before the court on 8 June said that the video of the incident showing Azaria shooting al-Sharif wasn't tampered with. Azaria's lawyer alleged that Imad Abu Shamsyieh, who documented the killing wasn't there by happenstance. He also said that his son had been arrested a month and a half ago. Shamsyieh responded that his son had been indeed arrested but he was released by the police later and didn't do anything wrong.[31] Azaria's commander, Major Tom Naaman testified before the court on 16 June that the victim posed no danger and Azaria had said that the victim needed to die.[32]

On 16 June, Dr. Hadas Gips, a pathologist from the Abu Kabir Forensic Institute, testified before the court. She stated that bleeding in Sharif's brain suggested that his heart was still beating when the bullet fired by Azaria hit his head. She also claimed that the rest of the wounds on his body were not immediately fatal and would have been saved had he been given appropriate medical treatment. When questioned by the defense team about the potential consequences of the shootings which preceded the one by Azaria, Gips stated that even after a shooting to the head which paralyzes the brain centers, the heart continues to beat sporadically. So if Sharif was shot in the head beforehand in the head, there wouldn't bleeding in other parts of the body that are not in the brain. She stated that the shot to the head was the last shot. In response to the question of whether there could be movement in the limbs after brain's failure to function, she replied that there could be small muscle cramps but she had have reservations about this and it was the domain of neurosurgeons more familiar with the issue than her.[33]

On 5 July, Ofar Ohana, the medic present at the scene was questioned by prosecutors. When questioned about the conversation he had with the Azaria's father, he refused to divulge any details. When he was questioned about the knife used by the stabber being moved, he claimed that he had moved the knife closer after it was moved further away from the spot by an ambulance driving away so the victim was not claimed to be another innocent person shot by Israelis. The prosecution however showed a video in which the knife was still far from Sharif's body even after the ambulance arrived. It also alleged both Ohana and Azaria had tried to cover-up the shooting was a carried out to take revenge and he told Azaria to lie to the police with Ohana denying this and claiming he only told him he would help him get a lawyer. The prosecutor also said that Ohana's claim that he thought the stabber had a bomb was untrue stating that he would have not come so close to him if that was the case.[34][35] Colonel Yariv Ben-Ezra, the commander of Hebron Brigades at the time of shooting testified on 6 July that the shooting was unwarranted and there was no explosives.[36] On 11 July, a soldier present at the scene testified that he saw Azaria cock his gun and stated that Azaria had said the stabber deserved to die.[37] David Shapira, another superior of Azaria who was present at the scene testified on 12 July that Azaria never mentioned a bomb threat and only stated his fear of the knife next to the stabber. He further stated when he questioned the shooter after the shooting that why he didn't kick away the knife, he responded that he felt threatened and when he told the shooter he didn't feel he was telling the truth, he fell silent.[38][39]

On 24 July, the shooter was cross-examined for the first time by the prosecutors. Azaria claimed that he shot Sharif when he started moving as he feared he might detonate an explosive device or would try to reach the knife near him.[40] On 25 July, Azaria admitted that the knife was not near al-Sharif like he earlier claimed it was. He also claimed that Tom Naaman had lied and stated Shapira was only involved second-hand.[41] On 26 July, the final day of the cross-examination, Azaria denied the allegation that he shot the stabber in revenge and claimed that Shapira was lying. He further claimed that the reason he shot him was not only because people were shouting the stabber had a bomb on him, but because the attacker made him suspicious and he didn't know who shouted that he had a bomb.[42] Later in the evening when questioned by the judges about why he didn't shoot earlier if he thought Sharif posed a danger to others, he replied that he didn't know. He also dismissed the videos submitted as evidence saying they didn't reveal anything.[43]

On 23 August, senior IDF Reserves officers Uzi Dayan, Shmuel Zakai and Dan Bitton who were set to testify for Azaria, submitted their declarations to the court which was leaked. Dayan stated that it was unjustified that a military police investigation was opened against Azaria, blaming the command as well the management of the scene. Zakai stated that the pictures of the incident certified that the prosecution is in error, and that Azaria acted out of a reasonable concern that Sharif may have been carrying a bomb. He blamed the command for the incident, asserting they acted contrary to instructions. He also criticized Defence Minister Moshe Ya'alon, IDF Chief of Staff, IDF Spokesperson as well as the Senior Command for their behavior after the incident, claiming it destroyed chance of a fair trial and dealt a blow to the logic of basis of law. Dan Bitton criticized officers at the scene of the incident and stated that an incorrect ruling will lead to a situation in which no soldier will be able to shoot to save lives in future. Azaria's legal team criticized the leak of their declarations, claiming it was done to prevent them from testifying for Azaria.[44]

On 28 August, Eliyahu Liebman, civilian security chief for Jewish settlers in Hebron, testified before the court. He backed Azaria's claim that he did present a threat as he was wearing a jacket on a hot day and also stated the description of "neutralized" did not apply to Sharif. He told the court that there was no justification for the accusations as soldiers had shot assailants in the head during terror incidents in the past so they could not continue their attack or detonate a suicide belt.[45] Despite the claim of a bomb threat, a video was shown in which Liebman could be seen leisurely walking nearby the stabber with his back turned. In response he did not sense a clear and present danger and did not speak anything at the scene about it because it was not his responsibility to assume command from an army officer.[46] On 29 August, Azaria's platoon commander backed his claim that there was fear of a suicide bomb. He also claimed that he warned Na'aman about the bomb threat who ignored his orders and had posted a soldier to watch over Sharif. The prosecution however questioned his claims, stating that he did not make any such claims during the investigation and also questioned why he was standing close to the stabber during the incident.[47] A police sapper who also testified on the same day stated that until the dead body of a terrorist hasn't been inspected by bomb experts, it should be regarded as being booby-trapped. He also stated that the bodies of the stabbers shouldn't have been moved until they had been inspected by experts for explosives and their clothing was appropriate considering the weather during the incident.[48]

On 30 August, Asher Horowitz, a member of Hebron's emergency response team testifying before the court claimed that there was a fear that the stabber was carrying a bomb and his wearing of a jacket on a hot day made it more suspicious. He also alleged that Tom Naaman was a leftist who detested settlers and his testimony was influenced by his political views.[49] On 31 August, defense attorneys produced a report by retired pathologist Yehuda Hiss which stated that Sharif had died before being shot in the head and the movements of his hand shown in footage might be involuntary.[50][51] On 1 September, Magen David Adom (MDA) paramedic Zahi Yahav, testified before the court that he had heard screams that the stabber might be booby-trapped and he escaped from the area of the incident as he genuinely feared that he could be blown up.[52] On the same day, Azaria's deputy company commander testified and stated that he heard the brigade commander, battalion commander and the battalion commander that Azaria was lying. He also stated the process was causing concern among the soldiers and might influence their testimonies.[53]

On 5 September, a lieutenant in the Kfir Brigade who was not at the scene testified that he understood Azaria's belief of the stabber wearing a suicide vest and was justified in shooting him if he was indeed wearing a suicide vest. However, during the cross-examination of the lieutenant, the prosecution proved he had only heard Azaria's story after he had already gotten advice from his defense lawyer with the lieutenant also admitting he had never encountered an explosive vest during his military career. On the same day, a surgeon Dov Shimon submitted his opinion that the stabber did not die due to Azaria shooting him. Shimon had also requested the court to gag the publication of his name, which was denied. During the cross-examination of the surgeon, the prosecutor stated that he was an expert in cardiology, not in forensic medicine. He also alleged that Shimon was fired from Hadassah Medical Center for submitting a false medical document in the past which he claimed was the reason behind the surgeon requesting a gag on the publication of his name. Shimon however denied this admitting the document submitted by him to the medical center in the past was forged but was provided to him by the Ministry of Health and he had no hand in it. He claimed he was persecuted by his employers at the center.[54][55]

On 11 September, a former chief bomb expert of Israel Police stated that although IDF was supreme in West Bank but the police's bomb squad was responsible for bomb-related issues. Another bomb expert, Ofer Ashkuri who testified for Azaria was blamed by the prosecutor to have copied his expert report from documents used by the defense. Ashkuri denied this allegation. One of Azaria's former non-commissioned officer junior commanders also testified on his behalf stating that he was a good soldier, never lost control of his emotions nor did he ever made any comments against Palestinians. He also critisiced the top three commanders who testified against Azaria as treating him too harshly for making a mistake in what he described as a "chaotic terror scene" where people felt their lives were in danger. He also agreed with the defense's argument that the other soldiers felt influenced to testify against Azaria because of the actions of their commanders.[56]

On 14 September, Ronen Bashari, the deputy director of MDA testified that the area where the incident occurred was extremely dangerous. He also stated that there had been a change in MDA's regulations which allowed a Palestinian attacker's body to be removed under IDF's order before the bomb squad arrived. Later, Yehuda Hiss testified before the court, stating that Sharif had died even before being shot by Azaria. He also was critical of the analysis of forensic pathologist Hadas Gips who had earlier testified for the IDF's prosecution. Hiss claimed that Gips' analysis of Sharif's death was contradicted by medical journals and also accused Gips of not perform all necessary procedures of the autopsy. Gips however rejected Hiss' claims while the prosecution pointed out his admitted involvement in organ harvesting. Later in the day, Yissachar Herman, a psychiatrist, testified before the court that Azaria's judgment was impaired due to him not having slept properly before the incident. The prosecution however showed that Azaria had slept 8 hours during the night before the incident. Herman also claimed that Azaria had learning disabilities and had told him that he had trouble reading the material from his interrogation. The prosecution however showed the court that Azaria had scored 93 marks in IDF's medic course.[57][58]

Ex-deputy IDF chief Uzi Dayan testified in favor of Azaria on 19 September stating that terrorists should be killed even if they don't pose a danger. He also stated that it up to a soldier in the field to determine whether a situation is dangerous.[59] Reserve General Danny Bitton also testified on the same day that the shooting was justified in case Azaria thought he was in danger. He also claimed that the military court is not able to determine whether Azaria really felt a danger and that a full military operational investigation wasn't done before the military police started investigating.[60]

On 25 September, a soldier who was injured in the attack by the two Palestinian stabbers testified in favor of Azaria, stating that there was a real concern of explosives. The prosecution pointed out that he never mentioned any concern about one of the attackers carrying an explosive during his original testimony after the attack. The witness acknowledged this, however stated that he was "not at his best". He however admitted that once Sharif fell to the ground, he no longer viewed him as a threat. Eli Bin, the head of MDA also testified on the same day, that according to instructions during time of the incident, an attacker shouldn't be approached if there is a concern about explosives. He also stated that following subsequent discussions, it was decided that concern about explosives would remain until the outer clothing of the attacker had been removed. The prosecution however showed the video of MDA rescue worker Ofer Ohana kicking the knife towards Sharif's body. He also questioned the credibility and neutrality of Ben and MDA and presented evidence that some MDA employees had refused to treat Palestinians in the past because of anti-Palestinian ideology.[61][62]

On 27 September, Shmuel Zakai testified in favor of Azaria claiming that he didn't shoot to kill and also stated that the way he is documented in the videos shooting Sharif, it was clear to him that Azaria was in danger. He gave his opinion that Azaria was afraid of a bomb while criticizing Azaria's company commander Tom Na'aman stating that the incident would have been avoided had he properly clarified the rules of engagement. He explained that in some operational situations, orders are given that alter the rules of engagement, such as when opening fire would put IDF soldiers at risk, stating Na'aman did not give that order and left the soldier with the previous and unclear rules of engagement. He also criticized his former brigade commander Yariv Ben-Ezra for his orders. Mark Weiser, a psychiatrist who met with Azaria after the incident to assess his mental standing, also testified. He stated that the shooter did not suffer from PTSD, contradicting his attorney's claims. In response to Azaria's accusations that he was cooperating with the prosecution to convict him at any cost and laughed at him, Weiser stated that he told Azaria he wasn't conspiring against him nor laughed at him, but might have smiled at him when he said he wanted to harm him as he considered it humoristic.[63]

On 26 October, Yoni Bleichbard, the head of settlement security in Hebron, testified in favor of Azaria claiming that he hadn't reported it as irregular shooting and Azaria was right to shoot Sharif. When questioned about Ben-Ezra's testimony that he had reported the incident as irregular, he stated that he didn’t know what the commander was thinking and what he understood. He also claimed his testimony was full of contradictions and claimed that the scene was handled improperly, leading to the controversial incident. He also claimed that he did not remember exactly what he saw Azaria do or what he told the IDF about it. Upon being questioned by the prosecution, he stated that Azaria's lawyer Eyal Beserglick had sought his help to "destroy the brigade commander" and he had repeatedly rejected his requests. Beserglick claimed what he said to him was terminology regarding undermining the reliability of the brigade commander. When questioned about Beserglick's message to have him court ordered as well his replies to cause a commotion and not to speak anything if he was forced to be there, he claimed that he did all he could not to come as he was against the attempt to turn him into a "state liar". The prosecution's forensic pathologist Hadas Gips testified again on the same day, sticking with her earlier testimony that Sharif was killed due to being shot by Azaria. Azaria's lawyers contradicted her, citing the testimony of the defense's pathologist Yehuda Hiss. They also questioned her objectivity, arguing that the IDF prosecution had pushed her in the direction they wanted her to go and questioned whether she was an expert in the specific area she was testifying about. In response to the claim that she had presented numerous articles to support her conclusion, she responded that she did so out of professionalism, knowing that there was a counter opinion by Hiss, but that she could have testified without submitting the articles.[64][65][66]

The prosecution submitted its summations on 7 November, stating that there was proof that Azaria had lied in his testimony and had changed his version five times. They stated that he had never told anyone testifying in the court that Sharif posed a danger, further claiming that the real reason he shot him to death wasn't because he actually posed an immediate danger, but out of revenge as he had stabbed his friend. It stated that he tried to justify it only after realizing the gravity of his actions.[67] Azaria's defense team submitted its summations to the court on 20 November. It asked the court to acquit him of all charges, claiming that his version of events had been confirmed during the investigation and the trial. They also claimed that he had never told anyone that Sharif deserved to die and even if he did, he did so following intense pressure after a traumatic incident. They also stated that there was a legitimate bomb scare and his commanders were the ones to blame. It also questioned whether Colonel Maya Heller, the presiding judge in the trial was capable of trying the case objectively and accused her of being biased against Azaria[68][69]

The prosecution and the defence team delivered their closing statements on 23 November. Azaria's attorney Ilan Katz called the trial "unwarranted" stating that soldiers and policemen have shot before at terrorists who seemed to have been neutralized as well, but there was no trial against them. He also criticized former Defence Minister Moshe Ya'alon's remarks that Azaria had "sinned". The prosecutor Colonel Nadav Weisman meanwhile stated that Azaria shot Sharif out of revenge with his commanders and a fellow soldiers stating that they heard him say Sharif stabbed his friend and needed to die. He further stated that acquitting him will create a dangerous precedent and his actions were illegal due to which he should be convicted.[70]

Court verdict and sentencing

The verdict of the military court was scheduled for 4 January 2017.[71] The hearing of the verdict was later relocated to IDF's headquarters in Tel Aviv due to the anticipated crowds and protesters.[72] On 4 January, Azaria was convicted of manslaughter by a panel of three judges. The verdict was announced by Central Command Chief Justice Colonel Maya Heller.[73] The sentencing was originally scheduled for 15 January.[74] Channel 2 meanwhile claimed that IDF had held a meeting with the shooter's father on the previous day, asking him to drop the appeal and fire their attorneys which would be taken into consideration for a pardon. He was also reportedly offered to meet with senior IDF officials for a plea bargain. Azaria's defense team in a letter to Lieberman called this a criminal offence. IDF however denied that they had made any such offer and stated that the meeting was held to ask his family if it needed any assistance. The defense team called the denial as a lie.[75] The court acceded to the defence team's request for postponement of sentencing discussions on 11 January, shifting it to a week and a half later.[76]

During the sentencing hearing on 24 January, Azaria's defense team asked the court to toss out the manslaughter conviction over the alleged offer by IDF to his father for a lenient sentence, claiming "tampering" with legal proceedings. The court rejected tossing out the verdict and added the hearings will continue but stated it would revisit the allegations later.[77] His father also appealed for lenient sentencing, asking it to consider Azaria's service and character as well as the physical and psychological health problems being faced by the family since the trial began. He claimed that his son had also received death threats from Palestinians. He also stated that he had been given an offer of lenient sentencing for his son and requested the court to sentence his son to time already served in open arrest on his base.[78][79] Several witnesses also testified for his character.[80] The prosecution team asked the court to sentence Azaria to a prison term of three to five years during a hearing on 31 January. It also asked his rank to be demoted to private.[81] Col. Guy Hazut, commander of Kfir Brigade, stated that what Azaria had done was serious and he should be punished, but stated that the punishment shouldn't be severe. He accepted meeting with Azaria's father but denied he had any discussion with him about the appeal or reduction in punishment.[82][83]

On 21 February, the court delivered the sentence for the case. Regarding Hazut's meeting with Azaria's father, it ruled that he had good intentions for the meeting even though he was misguided and thought Azaria would get less prison time if he expressed regret than if he filed an appeal. The court took Azaria's character and the situation at the time of the shooting into account, sentencing him to a prison term of one year and six months, 12 month probation thereafter, in addition to a rank demotion to private.[84][2]

Appeal

Azaria filed for an appeal against the decision on 1 March. Most of his defence team also quit in protest. His father and only remaining lawyer claimed later that during a meeting between Maj. Gen. Sharon Afek and Azaria's main defense lawyers Ilan Katz and Eyal Besserglick, they had been threatened that if they appealed against the verdict, IDF would file a counter-appeal for stricter sentence. IDF and both Katz and Besserglick denied this.[85] The beginning of his sentence which was scheduled to begin on 5 March, was also postponed by the Military Court of Appeals until the result of the appeal.[86] The military prosecution filed an appeal on 7 March for increasing the length of his sentence which they considered as "lenient".[87] The first hearing of Azaria's appeal began on 3 May.[88] In mid-July as his military service had been completed, he was allowed to return home and remain under house arrest until his appeal was heard.[89]

His appeal was rejected on 30 July by the military court, upholding his manslaughter conviction while also turning down a request by military prosecutors to increase the duration of his sentence.[90] Judges declared that his version of events was unreliable and were also quoted saying that the original reason for him to kill Sharif was revenge.[91] Azaria requested IDF Chief of Staff Gadi Eizenkot for leniency on 3 August while standing by his stated reason that he believed Sharif had an explosive device.[92] His attorneys submitted an official request to the Military Court of Appeals for delaying his prison sentence until Chief of Staff Eizenkot ruled on whether to commute his sentence.[93] Azaria's request for delay start of his sentence was rejected on 8 August with the court citing a 2010 ruling that a pardon request is not sufficient grounds for delaying the start of a prison term and also stated that sentences are to begin immediately after being handed down.[94]

On September 27, Eisenkot reduced Azaria's sentence from 18 months to 14 months.[95] Eisenkot stated that while he did not approve of his actions, he nonetheless reduced the sentence out of considerations for compassion, mercy and his combat service as a message was sent to all soldiers to not to act like him.[96] Azaria submitted a pardon request to President Reuven Rivlin on October 19.[97] Rivlin's office however issued a statement on November 19, saying that the appeal had been rejected by him, adding that he had taken into account both the offences committed by Azaria and their circumstances.[98]

Another pardon appeal, this time by his parents, was turned down on 24 December by the President stating that a new request could be made only six months after the previous decision.[99]

Imprisonment and aftermath

Azaria began his prison term on 9 August at Prison Four.[100] He was released after serving nine months of his sentence after a parole board ordered his early release.[101] Azaria was released on 8 May 2018, two days earlier than his original release date, after prison commanders granted him an early release to attend his brothers wedding in accordance with regulations that allow early releases in such circumstances.[102]

In accordance with a decision the IDF made in October 2017, about half of Azaria's discharge pay was withheld as a result of his conviction. Azaria, who would have originally been entitled to NIS 48,000 ($13,720), received NIS 24,000 ($6,860) instead.[103]

Reactions

The soldier’s shooting drew widespread condemnation, including from Israeli Defense Minister at that time, Moshe Ya’alon and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who called it a violation of the army’s ethical code. Ya'alon said "The incident is highly severe, and completely contrary to the IDF's values and its combat morals. We must not allow, even as our blood boils, such a loss of faculties and control. This incident will be dealt with in the strictest manner." Netanyahu also termed the criticism of the army over the shooting as "outrageous". IDF Spokesperson Brigadier general Moti Almoz said it was "a very severe incident. This is not the IDF culture or the Jewish people's culture." The controversy turned into a bitter political debate, splitting Israel’s rightwing government and inspiring demonstrations in Ramle and Beit Shemesh in support for the soldier. The soldier whose name was not officially revealed, has also attracted widespread support on Israeli social media with more than 13,000 people joining Facebook support groups and another 50,000 signing a petition backing his actions. Supporters of the soldier posted a video online of the moments before the shooting, which they say shows supports the soldier’s claim that he feared the assailant may have had an explosive device. The two most prominent figures who have given vocal support to the soldier and his family have been the right-wing Israeli education minister, Naftali Bennett, whose "The Jewish Home" party organised the demonstration in the city of Ramle, and the former foreign minister, Avigdor Lieberman. Israeli lawmakers from the center-left reacted harshly, warning of the dangers of moral decline and of loose rules of engagement in the military.[14][104] On 31 March 2016, Netanyahu spoke with Azaria's father, stating that he understood his distress as he himself was father of a soldier. He also reassured him that the difficult situations faced by soldiers confronting terrorists will be taken into account, and the system will be fair to his son.[105] On 6 April, IDF Chief of Staff Gadi Eizenkot stated during a meeting with soldiers at the Tze'elim camp that the shooting ran counter to the professional and ethical norms of behavior demanded of IDF troops.[106]

Demonstration in support of Azaria in Rabin Square. Translation of text on the poster: "If we don't protect our soldiers, who will protect us?"

A demonstration in support of the soldier was organised by his family with former Knesset member Sharon Gal in Tel Aviv's Rabin Square on 19 April. Singers Eyal Golan and David D'or and rapper Subliminal were slated to perform at the rally. However Golan and D'or pulled out of the rally citing the rally becoming politicised as the reason. The organisers had hoped for a large crowd numbering tens of thousands. However the rally drew only an estimated 2,000 people. The rally was attended by a number of pop icons, public figures and extremist figures.[22][107][108] Netanyahu on 19 April urged for "balance" in the shooter's trial and said that he is sure the court will act wisely in weighing Azaria’s killing of the Palestinian attacker and the context in which he operated.[109] On 25 July, Defence Minister Avigdor Lieberman said the government must not express a stance on the shooting until the end of the trial and also criticised the earlier reaction of his predecessor Ya'alon.[110] On 12 September, Lieberman stated that he would support Azaria even if he is convicted and urged the court to "ignore the noise" and judge according to the facts.[111]

During an interview with Channel 2 News, Netanyahu stated he had no regrets about calling Azaria's parents. When questioned whether he had made telephone calls to parents of other soldiers who had transgressed, he replied that he didn't but had talked to those parents of soldiers who were killed or missing. This created a controversy. Netanyahu was criticized by opposition politicians and the media who saw it as comparing parents of fallen soldiers to Azaria's parents. The Prime Minister's Office later issued a statement rejecting these claims and called them a "base, distorted and lying” misrepresentation. Netanyahu himself also denied these claims and apologised if his words were misunderstood or misinterpreted.[112][113] On 8 October, Bennett called for immediate pardon of Azaria if convicted because it was important to back soldiers in their efforts to "protect Israel from terrorists". He also raised doubts that Azaria was receiving a fair trial. His statements were criticized by Zionist Union MK Eyal Ben-Reuven as well as Yesh Atid MK Elazar Stern, both former soldiers.[114] Moti Almoz in response to criticism leveled at him for his statements regarding the incident, stated on 14 November that he had no regrets about denouncing Azaria. He defended the handling of the incident by senior IDF officers, claiming it couldn't have remained within the army. He also criticized Israeli politicians who had criticized the IDF for putting the shooter on trial.[115] On 28 December, former defense minister Moshe Ya'alon criticized politicians who praised Azaraia and attacked him, Netanyahu and the IDF. He also criticized Netanyahu for switching his opinion about the shooting and "embracing" the soldier. He also condemned Azaria's actions during the incident.[116]

On 1 January 2017, Azaria's defense team wrote a letter to Lieberman in which it asked for a state investigation into the trial, claiming that due process had been compromised. They cited public comments made after the shooting by IDF Chief of Staff Eizenkot, the IDF Spokesperson's Unit and then-Defense Minister Moshe Ya'alon, as well as the fact that Azaria was not present for the preliminary operational review following the incident. They also claimed that an unnamed senior military official who was quoted by Channel 10 News as saying that Azaria would be convicted, was the Military Advocate General who was trying to influence the decision of the judges. The IDF Spokesperson's Unit rejected these accusations as baseless and incorrect while military officials stated that the Military Advocate General Sharon Afek had never made any such comments.[72] Human Rights Watch blamed Israeli officials for the incident on 2 January, stating that they encouraged soldiers and police officers to kill Palestinians they suspect of attacking Israelis even when they aren't a threat any longer.[117] On 3 January, Eizenkot criticized those depicting the shooter as a "confused little kid" demeaned the army's character.[118] Former IDF Chief of Staff Benny Gantz as well as 53 reserve battalion commander supported his statements.[119]

After the verdict was announced, many Israeli politicians including Netanyahu called for Azaria to be pardoned while others accused the Israeli military of abandoning him. Protests also erupted outside the court house in response to the verdict.[120] Palestinian Authority meanwhile called the trial "farcical", claiming that Israeli government was trying to "deflect attention from its wide crimes."[121] The Palestinian cameraman who recorded the incident claimed that he had received threats to his life[122] and was also attacked by Israeli settlers.[123] After reports emerged that some soldiers at the scene of January 2017 Jerusalem truck attack had fled and hesitated in firing at the truck, some right-winged commenters alleged that they hadn't quickly responded because of the court verdict given in Azaria's case and feared having a fate like him.[124][125] The IDF however stated that at least two soldiers fired at the attacker, and it as well as a cadet at the scene denied a connection between troops’ response to the case.[124][125][126][127] Dozens of people illegally protested against the conviction outside the residence of the President of Israel on 8 January. At least seven protesters were arrested for public order offences.[128]

General Eyal Zamir, head of Southern Command, stated on 10 January at Haifa Leadership Conference that Azaria committed a criminal offense, but it was a threshold. He also stated IDF couldn't compromise its values or it will lose its morality. Col. Nimrod Aloni, commander of Paratroopers Brigade, reiterated the need to follow the rules of engagement at the forum.[129] Defense Minister Lieberman later called on people to calm down regarding the verdict while telling them to remember that Azaria an excellent soldier and Sharif was a terrorist who came to murder Jews. He also stated that everything was being done to guard IDF's values and Azaria.[130]

After the sentencing, several ministers called for Azaria to be pardoned. Meanwhile, the father of Sharif criticized the sentence as a "joke" and his family claimed that Palestinians were jailed longer for stone-throwing. Protests kept ongoing outside the court house as Azaria was sentenced.[131][132][133] Netanyahu also backed a pardon for Azaria, adding that it is important to consider the challenging circumstances young soldiers face.[134] Some human rights organisations and Palestinian leaders criticized the sentencing as extremely lenient.[135] The Arab League too criticized the duration of the sentence as lenient stating it showed "racism",[136] while Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights called it "excessively lenient" and "unacceptable".[137] Some revelers in a Hebron settlement paid tribute to Azaria during a parade organised on 12 March, organized to commemorate Purim.[138]

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External links

Video of shooting incident

Coordinates: 31°31′25″N 35°06′13″E / 31.5236°N 35.1037°E / 31.5236; 35.1037