In the ongoing trial of Israeli soldier Elor Azaria, who has been charged with manslaughter for the point-blank execution of a prone Palestinian in Hebron, Azarya himself testified on Sunday, maintaining that he acted out of self defense in what the prosecution has termed a “cold-blooded murder.”
During the court hearing at the Jaffa Military Court, the accused soldier also called for a probe of an Israeli army major who Azaria said slapped him in the face after he shot and killed the Palestinian, and also criticized the conduct of the commanders at the scene for mismanaging the situation, Israeli media sites reported.
Azaria described to the court his version of the events on March 24, when Abd al-Fatah al-Sharif and Ramzi Aziz al-Qasrawi were repeatedly shot, al-Qasrawi fatally, after the two allegedly stabbed and moderately wounded an Israeli soldier.
Video footage released that day showed Azaria step forward and shoot al-Sharif in the head after the Palestinian had been left severely wounded on the ground and untreated for several minutes, sparking international outrage and condemnation.
According to Israeli newspaper The Jerusalem Post, “all of the lawyers on both sides of the case agree that what Azarya did was wrong in a moral sense, following orders sense, and even in a being negligent sense.”
While his lawyers have attempted to argue that Azaria believed he was acting out of self defense, the Israeli army prosecution has insisted that he shot al-Sharif out of revenge for stabbing his fellow soldier.
The prosecution’s argument has been corroborated by multiple witnesses who have previously testified they heard Azaria say: “This terrorist was alive, and he needs to die.”
When asked about the claim that he carried out the shooting out of revenge, Azaria said on Sunday: "I'm quite certain that I didn’t say that sentence. If I did say it, it seems to me an incomplete sentence that is being interpreted not as I meant it," Israeli newspaper Haaretz quoted him as saying.
During his testimony, which followed the testimonies of various witnesses and two commanders who both said the killing was unjustified, Azaria explained that after hearing one of his friends had been stabbed, he arrived to scene sleep-deprived ten minutes after the initial shooting, The Jerusalem Post reported.
Azaria said that his first order was attending to his bleeding colleague, after which he alleged he heard others yelling, warning not to approach al-Sharif because he could have been strapped with explosives.
After he observed people milling about “complacently” in what he deemed to be a mismanaged crime scene, Azaria said he saw al-Sharif move, then shouted for everyone to stand clear, and shot him in the head, killing him.
"I had no choice but to shoot the terrorist because I saw there was serious and immediate danger which could kill too many to estimate," he reportedly testified. “I neutralized the danger. As I saw it, I saved lives."
"I hesitated before firing, but I saw no choice but to stop either another stabbing or exploding bomb.”
Azaria also reportedly told the court he had been preoccupied by warnings from Israel's internal security service, the Shin Bet, that an impending large-scale attack would be carried out in Hebron by the Hamas movement. He said that he believed al-Sharif or al-Qasrawi were attempting to carry out this attack.
In a hearing earlier this month, the highest-ranking commander in the case rejected arguments that Azarya acted out of self-defense, saying such claims were “disconnected from reality.”
Col. Yariv Ben Ezra echoed the Israeli prosecution's arguments that there was nothing out of the ordinary about al-Sharif’s jacket that could have raised suspicions he was concealing a bomb.
The commander said he only became aware of that version of events after hearing reports from Israeli media later in the day, in contradiction to Azaria’s claim that warnings were made immediately to the alleged threat.
Meanwhile, footage has shown both an Israeli soldier and an Israeli ambulance driver kick a knife closer to al-Sharif when it had previously been far out of his reach, further dispelling claims by Azaria that al-Sharif moved to reach for the knife.
Azarya reportedly told the court on Sunday his commanders betrayed him and were lying. In the wake of the shooting, Israeli military leadership "threw him to the dogs," he was quoted as saying.
While the defense has reportedly acknowledged that evidence shows it was not possible for al-Sharif to reach the knife and that he wasn’t wearing an explosive vest, they maintained Azaria’s “mistake was within a reasonable spectrum of actions that a young soldier unprepared for the situation might take under the circumstances,” according the The Jerusalem Post.
Meanwhile, in line with commander Ben Ezra’s testimony, the prosecution said that the self-defense argument was “concocted after the fact,” after Azaria “realized he was in trouble and that no reasonable person would have shot al-Sharif,” The Jerusalem Post wrote.
During the testimony, Azaria also described the stress he endured being stationed Hebron amid hostility between the local Palestinians and Israelis residing in illegal settlements there. "There's a sense of tension in the air all of the time, especially in Tel Rumeida, where the friction between Palestinians and Jews can be called the greatest in the world. It's a stressful place," Haaretz quoted him as saying.
Some 800 notoriously aggressive settlers now live under the protection of the Israeli military in Hebron’s Old City, surrounded by more than 30,000 Palestinians.
The 19-year-old soldier also aimed to impress upon the court that he does not discriminate against Palestinians. "I live in Ramla, a mixed city -- it has Jews, Arabs, Christians -- all religions, I have Jewish, Arab and Christian friends. There's no difference between them."
Azaria's testimony is to continue into Monday and Tuesday, when he will be questioned by the prosecution.
More than 220 Palestinians have been killed by Israelis since a wave of unrest began in October, as rights groups have denounced what they have termed a "shoot-to-kill" policy by Israeli forces.
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