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Witnesses return to Elor Azarya's self-defense claim in Hebron shooting trial

Aug. 30, 2016 7:16 P.M. (Updated: Aug. 31, 2016 10:09 A.M.)
BETHLEHEM (Ma’an) -- The trial for Israeli soldier Elor Azarya continued on Tuesday, as the court heard witness testimonies claiming the young soldier acted out of self defense when he shot and killed a prone Palestinian in Hebron in March.

The testimonies returned to claims previously made by the defense that Azarya shot Abd al-Fatah al-Sharif at point-blank range after the Palestinian had already been shot and severely wounded after allegedly attempting to stab another Israeli soldier, because Azarya believed al-Sharif could have reached for a knife or had been concealing explosive underneath his jacket.

However, Azarya’s commanders testified against him in July, saying the shooting had been unjustified and dispelling both claims by pointing to video footage that the knife had been far from al-Sharif’s body, and saying that nothing had been unusual about al-Sharif’s jacket to raise suspicions that he was boobytrapped.

Azarya himself later backtracked on his claims of self-defense.

On Tuesday, a member of the illegal Jewish settlement in Hebron's emergency response team, Asher Horowitz, testified in defense of Azarya, claiming that fears of explosives and a second stabbing attack were legitimate, Israeli newspaper Haaretz reported.

"At first I thought that the terrorists were dead, until I heard the shouts of my friends from the emergency squad, 'Careful, he moved, it's quite possible that he has an explosive device, nobody go near him, nobody touch him, he could blow himself up here on all of us,'" Haaretz quoted Horowitz as saying.

The claim contradicted the testimony of Colonel Yariv Ben Ezra, the highest ranking commander in the case, who said last month in court: “I heard no such claim about any such thing. The first time I heard of that suspicion was at noon, through the media, when the event was publicized. Not on my way to the site, not at the site -- the subject of fear of a bomb never came up."

Horowitz, meanwhile, argued that the testimony of Major Tom Naaman, Azarya's company commander, was motivated by “leftist” politics.

"From my minor familiarity with Tom, the company commander, I can say that he is clearly a leftist, who unfortunately, in contradiction to my expectation that he would handle the incident in a professional manner, is mixing in his groundless personal opinions about the settlements' residents," Haaretz quoted Horowitz as saying.

“There's no lack of incidents in Hebron that develop [in such a way]," he said, adding: "If I had been at the proper angle and had identified the movements, I'm certain that I would have been the one to fire at him. Because I wasn't in that location I didn't shoot, although I had a gun handy and a bullet in the barrel."

On Monday, the platoon commander of Azarya, whose identity is being withheld by an Israeli army gag order, also testified in favor of the self-defense narrative, returning again to the claim that al-Sharif’s jacket seemed “unusual and strange.”

Azarya had reportedly told military police that the day of the killing -- March 24 -- was a hot 30 degrees Celsius in Hebron.

A meteorologist had previously presented the court with documentation showing that the actual temperature was 17 degrees Celsius, while the prosecution was able show that five other individuals in the area were wearing coats similar to al-Sharif's.

"I left the house in a short-sleeved shirt. The terrorist who was still alive was dressed in a very suspicious manner, with a heavy, closed jacket, which constitutes a very strong suspicion that that terrorist, in addition to wanting to stab, could have had an explosive belt, a device, a weapon or anything else under his clothes," the platoon commander testified.

To be acquitted, Azarya need only convince the three judges that there is doubt as to the manslaughter charges against him, according to The Jerusalem Post.

The high-profile case drew unprecedented international condemnation toward the Israeli army, after a video clip was immediately released showing the brutal killing, and subsequently released footage showed both an Israeli soldier and ambulance driver tampering with evidence.

Despite Azarya being thrust into the spotlight for being caught in the act -- with his own commanders testifying that the shooting was unjustified and the Israeli army prosecution branding the case “cold-blooded murder” -- many have said the case is just a documented example of a wider “shoot-to-kill” policy against Palestinians advocated by Israeli officials since a wave of unrest began last October.

Following the March 25 shooting, Amnesty International said that the incident mirrored a number which had taken place previously.

“Israeli forces have a long history of carrying out unlawful killings -- including extrajudicial executions -- in the occupied Palestinian territories with impunity," Philip Luther, director of the organization’s Middle East and North Africa Program said at the time.

"While it is encouraging that the soldier in the video has reportedly been suspended and placed under investigation, previous Israeli investigations have failed to hold members of the Israeli forces accountable even when there has been clear evidence of criminal wrongdoing."

Israeli rights group B’Tselem has accused Israeli soldiers and police officers of acting as “judge, jury and executioner” for Palestinians during the past few months of unrest, also blaming official encouragement and effective impunity for Israeli soldiers.

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