Bar-Lev Military Base (Israel) – An Israeli soldier caught on video shooting a wounded Palestinian assailant in the head as he lay on the ground appeared in a military court Tuesday as hundreds of his supporters protested outside.
Prosecutors were seeking to extend the remand of the soldier until April 7 in a case that has gripped the country and sparked political tensions, and the judge decided that he be kept in custody until Thursday.
The 19-year-old soldier’s identity and that of his family remained secret under a gag order, granted at the request of his lawyers.
The protesters called for the soldier’s release despite video footage shared widely online showing him shoot the Palestinian in the head without any apparent provocation.
Around a dozen of the soldiers’ family members were also in the public gallery, some of them in tears.
Military top brass have strongly condemned his behaviour and Defence Minister Moshe Yaalon has pledged the case will be treated with “utmost severity”.
But far-right politicians have defended the soldier, and members of his family said he was being publicly “lynched” and would not receive a fair trial.
Avigdor Lieberman, the former foreign minister now in opposition, was in court to support the soldier and, as he put it, to “balance the crude intervention of the prime minister and defence minister” in the process.
“I’m not determining if (the soldier’s) conduct was correct or wrong, what’s clear is I prefer a soldier who made a mistake and stayed alive over a soldier who hesitates and is murdered by a terrorist,” he said.
On Tuesday, Yaalon hit back at “politicians and the extremist minority” perpetuating a “toxic atmosphere” since Thursday’s shooting.
“Whoever supports a soldier whose commanders think transgressed, but doesn’t support his superior officers, from the lower ranks to the chief of staff, damages the army and harms the national resilience,” he said.
– ‘Contradictions’ –
Video of Thursday’s killing in the flashpoint West Bank city of Hebron spread widely online and threatened to further inflame tensions amid a wave of violence that erupted in October.
It showed a 21-year-old Palestinian, who along with another man had allegedly stabbed a soldier minutes earlier, lying on the ground, apparently after being shot.
The soldier then shoots him again, in the head, without any apparent provocation. The Palestinian, Abdul Fatah al-Sharif, was killed.
“The suspicion emanating from the investigation is that the shooting was carried out intentionally and without need,” prosecutor Lieutenant Colonel Adoram Rigler told the court.
Rigler also noted “contradictions” in the soldier’s version of the events.
Defence lawyers said the Palestinian could have had an explosive device, even though he had reportedly been checked for a suicide belt before the shooting.
“There was no bomb-squad investigation, even if the officer kicked away the knife,” said defence lawyer Ilan Katz.
Among the supporters standing outside the army base during and after the hearing was Jacky Cohen, 66, who felt the soldier was wronged by the very same Israeli society that sent him to his military duty.
“He’s a child of the entire Jewish nation,” he said.
“Instead of backing him for taking out a despicable terrorist, they handcuffed him like a common criminal,” said the resident of the central Israeli city Petah Tikvah.
Violence since October has left 200 Palestinians and 28 Israelis dead.
Most of the Palestinians killed were carrying out knife, gun or car-ramming attacks, according to Israeli authorities.
But Israeli forces have also been accused of using excessive force in some cases, charges which they have firmly denied.