TEL AVIV — One of the most divisive trials in Israeli history is taking place in a cramped military courtroom in a peeling mansion in the poor Arab section of Jaffa.
It is the trial of a teenage Israeli sergeant, but in many ways it is about the soul of the Israeli army and the young men and women the Jewish state sends to protect its citizens and enforce its almost 50-year military occupation.
On trial for manslaughter before a military tribunal is a pint-size recruit who sits in the courtroom beside his mother, who wraps her arms around his shoulders and sometimes cries.
Such a public trial of a soldier charged in the killing of a Palestinian is almost unprecedented here. The last witnesses appeared this week.
The central fact of the case is not in dispute. In March, Sgt. Elor Azaria fired a single bullet at close range into the skull of a Palestinian assailant as he lay wounded, sprawled on his back, on a street in Hebron in the West Bank minutes after lunging at soldiers with a knife.
This is not in dispute because the shooting was caught on video by a Palestinian volunteer for the Israeli human rights group B’Tselem, which denounced the shooting as the “direct consequence of inflammatory remarks made by Israeli ministers and officials, augmented by the general public atmosphere of dehumanization.”
Many Israelis and Palestinians believe the only reason the 19-year-old Azaria is on trial is because of the video.
The question the court is asking is why Azaria shot Abdul Fattah al-Sharif in the head. Was it malice or self-defense?
The question many Israelis are asking is why Azaria is even on trial. They think he should have been given a medal — or, at worst, a reprimand.
“Terrorists need to be killed,” said Uzi Dayan, a general in the Israeli army reserves who testified in Azaria’s defense.
Dayan said that while serving as a commander in the 1990s, he allowed the killing of terrorists, even if they did not pose any immediate danger.
On this, Israelis appear divided.
The Israel Democracy Institute and Tel Aviv University released a survey last month of Jewish Israelis that found 47 percent support killing on the spot a terrorist who attacked Jews, “even if he has been captured and clearly does not pose a threat.” Support for killing the terrorist was highest among young Israelis and religious Israelis. Forty-five percent said such a terrorist should be handed over to authorities.
Palestinians and Israeli human rights activists called the shooting a summary execution.
Moshe Yaalon, Israel’s defense minister when the incident took place, said Azaria’s actions were “an utter breach of the army’s values and its code of ethics in combat.”
After Azaria’s arrest, thousands of flag-waving Israelis rallied in a central square in Tel Aviv to support Azaria and his family.
For many Israelis, the trial is every parent’s nightmare. Military service is mandatory for most Israelis at age 18, and the public compact requires the society to support its young troops almost without question.
The scene in Jaffa could be the setting of a stage play.
Courtroom No. 4 is tiny and intense. Four military prosecutors in uniform sit elbow to elbow at what appears to be a school desk. The four defense attorneys sit opposite, dressed in long black robes. A panel of three military judges looms above them at a dais made of cheap wood. A couple of wheezing air conditioners struggle against the humidity.
The prosecutors contend that Azaria killed the Palestinian without cause. The defense says he feared for his life.
Since the trial began in early May, the court has witnessed hours of boredom, as the attorneys wrangle over points of law, punctuated by wrenching scenes that lay bare deep fissures.
“You’re trying to frame him!” Charlie Azaria, the defendant’s father and a veteran police officer, shouted at the prosecutors one day. He later suffered a stroke from the stress.
During the trial, enlisted men have openly contradicted the accounts of their commanders. Witnesses have accused officers of coverups and lies. Senior Israeli officers have traded insults. Soldiers have complained of being bullied and brainwashed.
The shooting took place in one of the most tense settings in the West Bank — at one of the military checkpoints that protect 850 of Israel’s most ideological Jewish settlers, who live in the heart of old Hebron surrounded by 200,000 Palestinians.
On March 24, Sharif and a friend attacked the Israeli troops with knives, wounding one soldier. The Israeli forces quickly responded and shot both men. Ramzi al-Qasrawi died immediately. But the video captures Sharif moving slightly, a twitching of his head and hand.
The video shows Azaria pulling his rifle off his shoulder, aiming and firing at Sharif as a dozen soldiers, officers, medics, ambulance drivers and Jewish settlers mill about.
Many commentators remarked that no one appears to flinch after the shot. They simply go on about their business.
Maj. Tom Naaman, who was Azaria’s commanding officer at the time, testified that Azaria told him immediately after the shooting that the “terrorist was alive and needed to die.”
Quotes from courtroom testimony are taken from Israeli English- and Hebrew-language media. The Washington Post also attended the trial.
Naaman said that the scene was secure and that the two assailants were “neutralized” and posed no threat.
“I was angry that the shooting happened without my approval. In the initial questioning, Azaria did not mention fear of a knife or an explosive device to me,” Naaman told the court.
Naaman had to be publicly defended by the army chief of staff after receiving a deluge of phone calls and social-media posts branding him a traitor for his testimony.
Soon after Azaria talked to Naaman, he was questioned by a more senior officer, a battalion commander, Lt. Col. David Shapira.
“I asked him why he had shot,” Shapira testified. “Elor answered that he saw the terrorist move his head and that there was a knife next to him. I asked Elor, ‘You were near him. Why didn’t you kick the knife away?’ Elor answered, ‘I felt I was in danger.’ I told Elor that I felt he was not telling me the whole truth because after the incident he had told the company commander something entirely different. Elor was silent.”
According to Shapira, “In that conversation Elor did not mention any fear of a bomb, only his concern about the knife which was near the terrorist.”
The prosecution presented a video that showed a knife on the ground yards away from the prone assailant after he had been shot dead. As one ambulance passed by, a Jewish settler and ambulance driver named Ofer Ohana then kicked the knife closer to the body.
Azaria’s defense attorneys have argued that their client shot the assailant because he feared not a knife but a bomb hidden under his clothing. There was no explosive device.
One of Azaria’s fellow soldiers, an active-duty sergeant who was identified only by his initials in the media, told the court, “There was a terrorist in a black coat who was alive and moving. From my point of view, he looked like a threat.” The soldier said there were fears of a bomb.
Top Israeli officers have testified on Azaria’s behalf.
Shmuel Zakai, a brigadier general in the army reserves, said he watched the video and found Azaria’s manner calm and deliberate. “I assume that Azaria was concerned about an explosive device,” Zakai testified.
Danny Biton, a major general in the reserves, told the court, “If a soldier kills for no reason, he should go to jail. But in this case I disagree with the prosecution.”
He asked, “Should every soldier go to battle with a lawyer at his side?” Biton accused the prosecution of “castrating the army” by second-guessing a soldier’s action in the field. “There’s not one person in this trial who isn’t lying, and that’s what’s sad,” he said.
The three-judge panel will announce a verdict, though its deliberations could take weeks. If convicted, Azaria could face up to 20 years in prison.
The new defense minister, Avigdor Lieberman, said in September that Israel should support its soldiers “even if one of them makes a mistake.” Lieberman said, “We are talking about 18- and 19-year-olds.”
Naftali Bennett, Israel’s education minister and the leader of the right-wing Jewish Home party, offered a solution: If the court finds Azaria guilty, he should immediately be given a pardon.