There are a number of dimensions to the Israeli military court conviction last week of Sgt. Elor Azaria for manslaughter in the death of a Palestinian terrorist in Hebron last March.
Mr. Azaria was charged with shooting Abdel Fattah al-Sharif, who was prone on the ground, supposedly neutralized, having been shot by other soldiers after he and a fellow terrorist stabbed two Israeli soldiers. The terrorist was lying next to his accomplice, who had been shot dead by other soldiers. Azaria is said to have killed Abdel Fattah Sharif, in violation of IDF rules that prohibit killing already subdued prisoners who pose no further danger.
While Prime Minister Netanyahu called for an immediate presidential pardon, Sgt. Azaria’s lawyers have announced they will promptly appeal the verdict, which would delay the possible granting of a pardon since one cannot be applied for until all appeals are exhausted.
Mr. Azaria certainly seems a likely candidate for a pardon given that he was an inexperienced 19-year-old medic at the time of the shooting and the man he shot was wearing a long coat on a hot day, strongly suggesting he may have been concealing explosives. In addition, a video of the incident shows some slight movement on his part.
And it should not be lost that the terrorist killed by Sgt. Azaria had purposefully set out to murder Israeli soldiers and doubtless knew there was a very real chance he would be forfeiting his life. So the bottom line is that no civilized person should shed a tear over his passing.
But there are two related and gnawing concerns we have about the guilty verdict. For one thing, it appears there were two lines of evidence presented to the three-judge court – each one leading to differing conclusions of guilt or innocence. In view of the complicated circumstances, why would the court not credit the exculpating evidence?
Thus, Mr. Azaria testified that he heard (a claim supported by some witnesses) someone shouting about the danger Abdel al-Sharif still posed if he had explosives concealed under his coat. The court rejected that, as well as the claim that there was any significance to his having worn a coat on a hot day. The court also dismissed forensic evidence that Abdel al-Sharif was mortally wounded by soldiers before Sgt. Azaria came on the scene and shot him.
And the court seized on testimony concerning incriminating statements allegedly made by Sgt. Azaria. But that testimony was essentially a paraphrase of his remarks by a witness rather than a verbatim account. And Mr. Azaria denies ever having had conversation with the witness. So what Azaria may have said, if he said anything, is not at all clear.
Our second concern is that there seems to be reasonable basis to view the Azaria prosecution as an attempt to show the world that the Israeli military is super-sensitive to the “rights” of even terrorist cutthroats.
The consequences of this for IDF morale and effectiveness may have been already evident in the failure of IDF personnel to fully confront the Palestinian perpetrator of Sunday’s truck-ramming attack in Jerusalem. At least one eyewitness said some of the young soldiers were stymied by fear of an Azaria-like prosecution. For now that’s just speculation, but we hope this will be clarified as the investigation into the truck attack proceeds – an investigation that, one presumes, would include interviews with IDF personnel who were on hand during the Jerusalem attack.