An Israeli soldier's court-martial for killing a Palestinian assailant has transfixed the nation

The court-martial of an Israeli soldier charged with manslaughter in the death of a Palestinian assailant in March has transfixed much of the nation, fueling a wider debate on how to handle a recent wave of violence.

Israel Defense Forces Sgt. Elor Azaria is on trial for the March 24 fatal shooting of Abdel Fattah Sharif in the West Bank city of Hebron. 

Sharif had participated in a stabbing attack on Israeli troops and was wounded when troops shot at him and another assailant, who was killed, according to officials. Video published by an Israeli human rights watchdog shows Azaria cocking his gun, walking toward Sharif, who was lying on the ground alive, and shooting him in the head. 

Azaria told military police he thought Sharif could reach the knife he had used earlier. He also said he thought Sharif could have been carrying an explosive, Azaria’s lawyers said.

The military prosecutor, Nadav Weisman, has called a series of military commanders who have testified in recent weeks that there was no justification for Azaria to open fire.  

Palestinians and human rights groups have said Azaria carried out a summary execution.

At Sharif’s funeral in May, his father, Yusri, said that he didn’t believe the trial would do justice for his son and that the court-martial was aimed at mollifying international public opinion, according to Palestinian and Israeli reports. Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat asked the United Nations for a formal investigation into the killing.

B’Tselem, the Israeli rights group that published the video, alleged in a June statement that there is a “shoot to kill’’ policy among the Israeli military and police in responding to the attacks.

“These cases are hardly ever investigated,’’ the organization said. “The case of Sgt. Azaria… is the one exception.’’  

But the case has also resulted in a rare rift between the military – the country’s most trusted public institution – and large parts of the Israeli public who sympathize with Azaria. The fallout has shaken up Israeli politics by undermining support for former Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon, who backed the army top brass and criticized Azaria before being dismissed from the post in May.

The trial reflects an ongoing challenge for authorities about how to respond to a wave of knife attacks, shootings and car rammings that have left dozens of Israelis dead as well as hundreds of Palestinians, many of them suspected of carrying out attacks.

Some Israelis have said attackers should be killed rather than arrested as a means of deterrence, but the army chief of staff has stressed that lethal force should only be used in life-threatening situations. Many Israelis side with Azaria even though they think he was wrong to shoot.

“Some Israelis say: at the end of the day, he killed a terrorist,’’ said Mitchell Barak, an Israeli American public opinion expert. “Maybe he shouldn’t have [shot at Sharif] – but we shouldn’t throw him in jail.’’

Signs of the trial’s incendiary fallout came with the first witnesses for the prosecution in mid-June, when Azaria’s company commander testified that the medic told him shortly after he opened fire that Sharif  “deserved to die.” The officer was subsequently inundated with threats over social media, prompting the court to enforce a press gag order on the identities of junior ranking prosecution witnesses during the trial to protect them from harassment. 

While Azaria, who is expected to testify Sunday and Monday, has remained silent during the trial, his family has made some emotional appeals on his behalf. In an impromptu conversation with courtroom reporters this month caught on video, Azaria’s father, Charlie Azaria, lashed out at the military prosecution. 

“They want to throw him into jail,” the father said during a break in the trial proceedings. “For this we sent our son to serve?”

A few days later, in a video appeal on a crowdfunding website, Azaria’s parents made a public appeal for assistance with financing the trial.

“Today it’s my son. Tomorrow it could be your son, or grandson or your great-grandchild,” the father said.

 Within hours, the crowdfunding effort raised $150,000 in pledges, exceeding its goal by 50%.

Kobi Sudri, a private defense attorney and a former military police investigator, said the defense strategy is to demonstrate that – even though Azaria’s commanders testified that there was no threat posed by Sharif – that it was possible for Azaria to honestly perceive a threat that justified opening fire.

“The most important evidence in the trial will be Azaria’s testimony. The question is whether the judges will believe him,” Sudri said.     

There is a feeling among some Israelis that the military’s top brass and the former defense minister rushed to accuse Azaria, and prejudiced the trial, said Ben Dror Yemini, a columnist for Israeli’s Yedioth Ahronoth newspaper.

Yemini said that while many Israeli liberals have decried the support Azaria has gotten from the public as a sign of eroding democratic values, the trial signals the opposite.

 “Israel is becoming much better [because] we have such a scandal,” he said. “Twenty years ago, no one would have taken him to court.”

Mitnick is a special correspondent.

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