Israel’s military prosecutor on Monday formally charged a young combat medic with manslaughter in the shooting of a Palestinian knife attacker in the West Bank last month, saying that the soldier violated open-fire rules and acted without justification.
The prosecutor accused Sgt. Elor Azariya, whose identity was revealed Monday for the first time, of firing from close range at the head of Abdel Fattah Sharif, who had been lying prone on the ground with multiple bullet wounds for several minutes after the knife attack on an Israeli soldier in Hebron.
“The terrorist… had not carried out another attack and did not constitute an immediate or substantial threat to the defendant or the other civilians and soldiers,’’ according to the one-page indictment submitted to a military court in Jaffa. “In his actions, the defendant illegally caused the death of the terrorist al Sharif.’’
The shooting, which was caught on Palestinian video publicized by the Israeli human rights group B’Tselem, is a rare instance in which the army accused one of its own in the death of a Palestinian. It has kicked up a politically polarizing solidarity campaign on Azariya’s behalf that has aimed unusually harsh criticism at the army top brass and Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon, who have been accused of hastily judging the medic rather than backing him up.
Palestinian officials allege that the shooting of Sharif is part of a policy by Israeli security agencies to respond to assailants with deadly force even after there is no immediate threat. The United Nations Middle East coordinator for the peace process, Nikolay Mladenov, condemned the shooting as an “apparent extra judicial execution.’’
The defense team for Azariya, who is also accused of behavior not fitting a soldier, says that he opened fire fearing that Sharif was wearing an explosives belt.
“There won’t be a conviction.... We will seek a complete exoneration,” defense attorney Ilan Katz told Israeli reporters outside the courthouse on Monday. “The evidence is weak.”
The soldier’s father, Charlie Azariya, encouraged supporters to attend a rally on Tuesday in Tel Aviv’s Rabin Square. The event had been planned to include two Israeli pop stars, but they pulled out on Monday.
Solidarity protests have hailed the soldier as a hero. Many Israelis sympathize with a conscript perceived to have acted impulsively in the throes of a dangerous situation.
At a demonstration outside the military court, supporters held signs reading, “We are all with the combat soldier.”
The incendiary atmosphere prompted Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to weigh in on Monday, saying that although he understood the concern of the soldiers’ family, open-fire regulations were necessary to protect soldiers’ safety as well.
“I want to tell the public: Lower the flames. The Israel Defense Forces backs up its soldiers,’’ he said.
The incident occurred the morning of March 24, when Sharif and another knife assailant attacked an Israeli soldier who was lightly wounded. Sharif’s partner was killed, but he was left alive with multiple bullet wounds, according to an autopsy.
Supporters of Azariya say that he acted in the heat of the moment and can’t be judged by those who were not on the scene. According to Israeli news media reports, Azariya said at the time of the shooting that Sharif deserved to die. Yoram Yair, a former major general on the army’s general staff, said that Azariya told Israel Radio that he acted unprofessionally.
Data from the Israeli human rights watchdog Yesh Din indicate that the military prosecutor has investigated 262 cases of deaths of Palestinians and foreign nationals by soldiers since 2000. Those investigations led to 22 indictments, but just one manslaughter charge and conviction, for the killing of a British national.
Mitnick is a special correspondent.