Elor Azaria, famous for shooting an unarmed Palestinian to death in the West Bank city of Hebron, has expressed his support for five Israeli soldiers on trial for beating Palestinians in custody.
Azaria demonstrated outside the Jaffa Military Court yesterday, where the four Israeli soldiers and their commanding officer are on trial for beating two Palestinians while they were in their custody. Azaria told the crowd of right-wing activists that the soldiers "should be strong, go with that they hold to be true, all of Israel is behind them," the Times of Israel reported. Azaria added: "They shouldn't be afraid. Only they know what happened there. No one can judge them. No one was in their shoes."
Azaria gained infamy in March 2016 when he was caught on video shooting 21-year-old Palestinian Abdel Fattah Al-Sharif in the head while he lay wounded on the ground in Hebron, in the occupied West Bank. The footage was released by Israeli human rights organisation B'Tselem and caused international uproar, leading an investigation to be opened against him.
In January 2017, Azaria was convicted of manslaughter and a month later was handed an 18-month prison sentence. Azaria was treated leniently throughout his detention, being granted release to spend the Jewish festival of Passover with his family after barely serving a month of his sentence. In September 2017, Israel's military chief of staff cut Azaria's jail term by four months, while prominent establishment figures called for him to be pardoned. He was released in May 2018, having served just nine months of his sentence.
Azaria's support for the five soldiers on trial should come as little surprise given their shared violence against Palestinians. In January, it emerged that the five had beaten two Palestinians who were arrested during a manhunt for the alleged perpetrator of an attack on Israeli soldiers near the illegal outpost of Givat Assaf in December. The soldiers were suspected of beating the detained Palestinians as revenge for December's attack, since both sets of soldiers belong to the same unit – the Netzah Yehuda Battalion of the Kfir Brigade, an ultra-Orthodox unit based near the northern West Bank city of Jenin.
Details of the beating have emerged for the first time during this week's court case. The two Palestinians in question were a 50-year-old father and his 15-year-old son from the occupied West Bank, Ynet reported. The 15-year-old boy told the Jaffa court that:
I was lying on my back, with hands cuffed behind my back and a blindfold over my eyes. I was kicked by four soldiers – who used their hands, feet and the barrels of their M16 rifles – in the face, chest, abdomen, legs, and testicles […] I couldn't open my left eye and my mouth was filled with blood.
The soldiers also forced the boy to watch his father being beaten to the point of losing consciousness. "I saw them breaking my father's ribs by beating him in the chest with gun barrels. My hands were tied behind my back, I could not do anything," the teen recalled. His father added: "In the hospital I had an operation, and three of my ribs were broken. I had been stepped on by the soldiers at least five times […] One of the soldiers stepped on my face and broke my nose."
The soldiers are also thought to have filmed the incident, with the video now being used as evidence against them. All have provided conflicting versions of events, seeking to downplay their roles in the violence. Though the commander of the unit was indicted on Monday for failing to prevent the attack, it is as yet unclear if the soldiers will be sentenced.