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Israeli soldier Elor Azaria found guilty in controversial manslaughter trial

Elor Azaria in the Jaffa military court on May 9
Jack Guez/AFP

An Israeli military tribunal on Tuesday found Sgt. Elor Azaria, 20, guilty of manslaughter in a verdict that is expected to draw strong reactions from a divided public and leadership.

The panel of judges said Azaria had changed his story several times and rejected several key defense claims, including that the Palestinian was already dead when he was shot. They also said they believed testimony that Azaria had made a statement implying he believed the attacker deserved to die after stabbing his friend.

The Israel Defense Forces (IDF) sergeant was charged over the shooting of an already disarmed Palestinian assailant in Hebron last March. Closing statements were made in court by prosecution and defense attorneys in late November.

JACK GUEZ (AFP)

In his own court testimony, Azaria cited a fear that the assailant could still attack with a knife or a hidden explosive as his reason for opening fire. The prosecution argued his motives were more sinister, noting witness testimony that Azaria told his fellow soldiers that "the terrorist deserved to die" immediately following the shooting.

Azaria's company, battalion and brigade commanders were all called to the stand and testified that they did not share the soldier's reading of the situation, heavily criticizing his decision to shoot. All three said there was no fear the terrorist was armed with explosives, despite Azaria's claims.

The soldier's attorneys avoided criticizing the army as a whole for its handling of the case, but they did lash out at the officers who were critical of Azaria in court.

"We don’t accuse the army" said Ilan Katz, the head of Azaria's legal team. "We accuse specific officers: the company, battalion and brigade commanders, who as he (Azaria) said, deserted him in the battlefield."

B'Tselem/AFP

The prosecution maintained that Azaria lied and changed his version of events several times, even claiming he was slapped by his commander immediately after the shooting, something not supported by video evidence or other testimony.

"We've seen Elor Azaria, unable to explain the differences in his versions, unable to explain why people are supposedly lying about him and contradicting his version of events" said military prosecutor Lt. Col. Nadav Weissman.

Several witnesses, including more junior officers, testified that they did share Azaria's fear of an explosive potentially hidden on the body of the assailant, adding that they felt his decision to shoot was correct. One of these was Eliyahu Libman, the head of civilian security in Hebron.

During Libman's cross-examination however, the prosecution pointed out that Libman himself can be seen in the video footage of the incident, casually walking through the scene and turning his back on the assailant, who is seen laying on the ground. Several seconds later, the footage shows Libman with his back still turned to the assailant, despite his professed fear of an explosive, when the shot rings out.

The prosecution also emphasized that none of the witnesses at the scene bothered to notify the commanding officer on the scene of any concern over a hidden explosive.

In August, Azaria's defense called in three retired Israeli generals to testify in Azaria's favor, among them a former IDF deputy chief of staff, Major General Uzi Dayan. The generals argued that Azaria's decision to shoot was acceptable, with Dayan adding that in principle, he believed terrorists should be killed. The retired officers also argued that any questions should have been handled without a criminal trial.

Azaria's lawyers also brought in an expert witness, Professor Yehuda Hiss, the former chief pathologist at the Abu Kabir Institute of Forensic Medicine. Hiss claimed the assailant was already dead when he was shot by Azaria, challenging the analysis of Dr. Hadas Gips, the pathologist who performed the actual autopsy on the assailant's body, who concluded that it was Azaria's bullet that led to the Palestinian's death.

Additionally, the defense argued that the case itself ballooned into a criminal procedure because of comments made by Moshe Yaalon, the Defense Minister at the time of the incident, who criticized Azaria's conduct in the media. The soldier's lawyers added that similar incidents in the past had not even resulted in a trial, with authorities concluding that soldiers or policemen should be afforded a "margin of error" in certain complex situations.

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