“Sitting next to his parents, with a blank face, [Sergeant Elor] Azaria is realizing the defense arguments are collapsing,” Shabtay Bendet wrote in Walla last Thursday, on the trial of the medic who last Purim in Hebron shot to death an Arab Terrorist who had already been neutralized and was lying on the pavement. An Arab B’Tselem cameraman captured the incident, and as a result what would have ended in a disciplinary hearing for the shooter, at most, quickly turned into a murder charge which was then reduced to a manslaughter indictment by the IDF prosecutor.
“These last few days of hearings did not bode well for the soldier, accused of killing a terrorist,” wrote Bendet, as if the term “terrorist” was a kind of civilian occupation, and could be easily substituted with “housewife” or “driving instructor,” or “electrician.” Bendet continued: “One after the other the witnesses undercut the defense claim that the terrorist posed a real threat of carrying an explosive charge on his person. Meanwhile, Azaria and his family have been maintaining their silence, except for one outburst borne by the realization that things are not great [for them].”
Bendet’s report about how the prosecution has been winning the Azaria trial mirrors countless reports with a similar message which have saturated Israel’s media over the weekend. And, naturally, the further to the left the writer, the broader the implications of the Azaria manslaughter case regarding the entire Netanyahu government and its policies in Judea and Samaria.
Ravit Hecht criticized in Haaretz on Friday Azaria’s father’s emotional call on Prime Minister Netanyahu to intervene in hi son’s case. “The father is calling on the prime minister to, in effect, take action against the army,” she wrote. “The father is turning to the prime minister to sabotage the machinery of the very system with which he is trusted.”
Hecht then goes on to accuse Netanyahu of always sabotaging the systems he is trusted with, but it’s clear from her approach that a conviction in the Azaria case is the proper outcome, while, should the 19-year-old sergeant be acquitted, democracy would be in peril.
Bendet, for his part, misunderstands the central issue in this case, which has made it such a tough case for the prosecution, they had to go and recruit outside talent from Israel’s top litigation firm. The case depends not on the objective conditions near the Hebron check point on the morning of the incident and whether or not there was a realistic expectation of the terrorist carrying explosives on his body, but on the state of mind of the shooter at the time: did Sergeant Azaria believe the terrorist posed a credible threat while on the ground?
But even regarding the rules of engagement as they were understood at the time of the incident, the prosecution’s testimonies are problematic, if not outright tainted, according to Moshe Ifergan, writing for Mida Saturday.
“Don’t believe what the media are telling you,” Ifergen insisted. “Judicially speaking, the testimonies of the division commander, the soldier and the company sergeant who were at the scene prove that the prosecution has collapsed. Severe internal contradictions in witnesses’ testimonies and obstructions of the investigation on the part of the command level should lead to a mistrial.”
Ifergen accuses the IDF of intervening in the investigation in a manner that hopelessly polluted the evidence and the testimony. Kalman Liebskind, writing for Ma’ariv also accused then defense minister Moshe Ya’alon and IDF chief of staff Gabi Eizenkot of jumping to damning conclusions before the investigation had begun, and essentially shutting out any testimony that contradicted their strong and unmistaken condemnation of the accused. The defense was able to elicit from several witnesses, rank and file soldiers in Azaria’s unit, testimony about the massive campaign on the part of the division commander and the new battalion commander to condemn the accused.
A central question in the case, which everyone involved, including the judge, keep going back to, is the prosecution’s argument that the behavior of the soldiers in the B’Tselem video does not show that they were concerned about an explosive charge on the terrorist’s body, which the defense says was the reason Azaria shot him on the ground. Since these soldiers had undergone special training to handle explosives in such a situation, goes the argument, their lack of concern is evidence that no such threat existed at the time, ergo Azaria shot the terrorist because he hates Arabs.
But the protocols suggest otherwise. Here’s one exchange:
Defense: You underwent instruction with visualized situations of isolating a terror attack scene?
Soldier M: No.
D: You underwent instruction and situations where there was concern for an explosive charge on a terrorist?
D: And on the terrorist’s body?
D: The division commander who testified here said in an announcement [date omitted] that he instructed the commanders at the check point in Kiryat Arba (near Hebron) with the complete set of scenarios and that he wants to believe that this was passed on to all the soldiers. To you it wasn’t passed?
M: No, it wasn’t passed.
. . .
D: [A previous witness, an enlisted man] says like you’re saying, that you didn’t undergo training in situations of isolating an attack scene, and he says you didn’t undergo instruction and visualizing of situations where there was concern for an explosive load on the body of a terrorist?
M: No, just like I said a minute ago.
D: The company commander also confirms this regarding a lack of instruction for explosive charges here. Does this match your version?
The defense questioned three witnesses on this point, proving without the shadow of a doubt that while the division chief had instructed his commanders on the rules of engagement and protocol regarding a terrorist suspected of carrying a charge, the commanders did not consequently train their own underlings, which would suggest that the reason they appear care free and unafraid of an impending explosion was ignorance.
Meanwhile, earlier in the proceedings, the defense received confirmation to its point regarding the danger of an explosive from a prosecution witness, Sergeant A.
Prosecutor: When you arrived on the scene, what was your assignment?
A: To secure the terrorist who was situated at the bottom part of the slope, [dressed] in black, and to isolate the scene.
P: Who gave you this assignment?
A: Meir Avni (company commander).
P: What did he tell you regarding the terrorist?
A: He said the terrorist was still alive and there’s a concern about a charge on his person, I shouldn’t let people coming from down below to get close.
This was then used poignantly by the defense.
Defense: [Company Commander] Avni knows about the concern regarding the charge, this contrary to the testimony of the Division Commander.
D: And he instructs you not to go near the terrorist, to wait for the sapper and stay away from him.
A: Yes, [but] on point there’s one correction, I was instructed especially to stand behind the sapper and make sure people who are not part of the security forces not go near.
The odds on an acquittal or a mistrial for Sergeant Azaria among legal professionals who are interviewed by the media are about fifty-fifty. With one military judge already having been forced to recuse herself following an accusation of conflict of interests, and with the security establishment appearing so heavily invested in getting a conviction, it won’t be an easy task for the military judicial panel to rule against the system. But the case for both an acquittal and a mistrial appears strong, so that there’s little doubt that a conviction would result in an appeal to the civilian Supreme Court.