An Israeli soldier who shot a disarmed Palestinian attacker in the head at point blank range will be indicted for manslaughter next week, the military prosecutor handling the case has said.
The killing, which took place last month in Hebron, a volatile city in West Bank, was caught on camera by an activist using a mobile phone and later released by Israeli human rights group B'Tselem. In the footage 21-year-old Abdel Fattah al-Sharif was lying on a street wounded after being shot in an attempted stabbing. He moves his head before a soldier steps forward and shoots him. The camera then zooms in, showing a stream of blood running down the street.
According to the Israeli army Sharif, who an autopsy concluded was killed by a shot to the head, had attacked military personnel prior to his death — however he was on the ground and injured at the time the video was filmed.
In court the soldier later claimed that he fired the fatal shot because he believed that the Sharif was wearing a suicide belt beneath his coat, citing propaganda videos by Palestinian militant group Hamas threatening attacks on Israel as his reasoning.
"His coat was large and furry, on a really hot, sunny" he noted. "If he did have an explosive belt and he did explode, what would have happened? How many dead would there have been? People would have asked why no one thought to confirm the neutralization."
However, prosecutors have pointed out that the soldiers in the video appeared calm and can be seen milling around suggesting no one viewed Sharif as a threat. "The suspect doesn't throw the helmet down and charge at the terrorist, he doesn't shout. He cocks his gun while in a standing position, in what appears to be cool-headed behavior," Lieutenant Colnol Aduram Riegler, the Israel Defence Forces's attorney for operational affairs, said.
The accused soldier initially faced a murder investigation, but it was downgraded to manslaughter last month. Only one Israeli soldier has been convicted of manslaughter since 2000, for the killing of British activist Tom Hurndall, following a years-long campaign by the Hurndall family and pressure from the British government.
The recent case has polarized Israeli society. While right-wing groups have held a series of rallies in support of the soldier and accused the media of "lynching him," human rights activists have cited it as proof that Israeli security forces pursue a policy of "shoot first ask questions later" when dealing with Palestinian attackers.
Of the 188 Palestinians killed in the latest spate of violence, which begun in October last year, Israeli security forces say that 144 were carrying out while carrying out attacks and the other 44 died during clashes.
Commenting on the incident, Israel's Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon called it "a case of a soldier gone bad, not a hero" and condemned the rallies in his support saying that "gang leaders" would not be allowed to influence the investigation. However, the country's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is seen as have taken a softer stance after he personally called the accused soldier's parents to reassure them he would receive a fair investigation.
"As a father of a soldier I understand your distress," Netanyahu told the accused soldier's father in the phone conversation last month. "Our soldiers have faced terrorist attacks and murderers who try to kill them with courage and determination. They are required to make decisions in real time, on the ground, under pressure, and in a situation of uncertainty."
A recent poll by the right-wing newspaper Israel Hayom found that 60 percent of youth believe that the soldier should not be prosecuted for shooting Sharif.
Commenting on the case Gilad Grossman, a spokesperson for Yesh Din, an Israeli human rights group, said that the decision of the military prosecution to press forward with manslaughter charges was a "very big step" but noted that the overall number of prosecutions against soldiers for violence against Palestinians remained low and that they tended to face less serious charges.
Statistics compiled by the group, based on official army figures, show that of 2,600 investigations opened by the military into alleged crimes committed by Israeli soldiers against Palestinians between 2000 and 2014 only 5 percent resulted in indictments. In that time frame there were four convictions against soldiers for "negligent homicide" in the case of Palestinian fatalities and one conviction of "homicide" in the case of the killing of a British national.
"These numbers tell you something. It leads you to believe the paradigm of the military prosecution is to see these kinds of incidents [Palestinian fatalities] as a mistake or negligence not as a crime of a higher order, as murder," Grossman told VICE News. "That the army's view is that they are there to protect Israelis, not Palestinians."
Last month the military closed an investigation into an Israeli Colonel, Yisrael Shomer, who fatally shot a 17-year-old Palestinian who throw a rock at his vehicle. CCTV footage of the incident appears to show the teen was fleeing when the shots were fired.
Commenting on the decision not to press charges against Shomer, B'Tselem said in a press release the case was "part of the whitewash mechanism which is Israel's military investigative system" and showed the willingness of the army to provide "impunity to members of the security forces who unlawfully killed Palestinians."
The NGO declined to comment on the manslaughter charge against the unnamed soldier accused of killing Sharif stating that it was "too early" but expressed concerns for the safety of the activist who shot the footage saying that he had been subject to murder threats and had stones thrown at his home by settlers after the video was released.
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