IDF Soldier Elor Azaria Convicted of Manslaughter

Supporters of IDF soldier Elor Azaria protest outside the military court in Tel Aviv on Wednesday. (Reuters/Amir Cohen)

A military court on Wednesday convicted Sergeant Elor Azaria of manslaughter in the final decision on the fate of the IDF soldier who shot a terrorist who had been neutralized in Chevron in March 2016. The court said that the defense had not proven its case, and that there were “many problems and gaps in the testimony of the defense” regarding the intentions of Azaria.

The sentencing of the 20-year-old will be handed down at a later date.

Hundreds of protesters demonstrated in support of Azaria outside an IDF base in central Tel Aviv where the verdict was handed down.

Reading for 2-½ hours from the verdict, chief judge Colonel Maya Heller said that Azaria shot the neutralized terrorist “out of revenge” after he attacked IDF soldiers with a knife. Azaria claimed that he feared that the terrorist had been carrying a bomb that he intended to explode even while he was on the ground.

“He deserves to die,” Azaria was quoted in the verdict as telling another soldier, just after fatally shooting the Palestinian in the head.

“One cannot use this type of force, even if we’re talking about an enemy’s life,” the court said in its verdict. “We unanimously convict the accused of manslaughter and of conduct unbecoming (a soldier).”

Sentencing will be handed down at a later date. The manslaughter charge carries a maximum penalty of 20 years’ imprisonment.

The verdict caps a nine-month saga that has deeply divided the country.

Evidence on the culpability of the soldier was mixed, with footage and testimony surfacing that either indicate that the soldier was justified in his claimed fears that the terrorist, who was still alive, could have set off a bomb he may have been carrying on his person, or that he was completely immobilized and “deserved to die,” as some witnesses have claimed that the soldier said. The court said it had accepted that version of the story, based on testimony given by witnesses at the scene.

In delivering her verdict, Heller systematically rejected all of Azaria’s defense arguments, saying, “The fact that the man on the ground was a terrorist does not justify a disproportionate response.”

The court said that one of the key pieces of testimony was footage produced by the far-left group Betselem, which showed that the terrorist had been on the ground for “many minutes” before Azaria decided that he was a danger. In addition, an autopsy had clearly established that the defense’s claim that the terrorist was already dead when Azaria shot him was untrue. Azaria, the court said, changed his version of the story numerous times, and thus could not be believed.

“There is no debate on the defendant’s actions, in which he shot the terrorist. The defendant was aware that the shot he fired would take the life of his target. He took that shot and justified it,” the court said in its decision. The court found that Azaria did not shoot the terrorist because he feared there would be an explosion, but because he felt the man “deserved to die” because he was a terrorist stabber.

On Tuesday, the family of Azaria slammed IDF Chief of Staff Gadi Eisenkott for remarks he made in a speech regarding the outcome of Azaria’s trial. “An 18-year-old soldier should not be seen as an innocent boy,” Eisenkott said. “He is a soldier, a fighter, who is expected to sacrifice himself in order to carry out his assignments. He is not allowed to get ‘confused.’ The orders on when to open fire have not changed in a decade.”

Eisenkott also stressed that as far as he knew, the wave of sympathy many in Israeli society have for Azaria has not affected the trial. “This misplaced sympathy is a confusion of all of the things we demand from our soldiers,” he added.

Updated Wednesday, January 4, 2017 at 1:30 pm