Israeli Judge Assassinated in Tel Aviv

Palestinian militants claim responsibility for the first known slaying of a jurist in the nation's history. But authorities are skeptical.

By Laura King

Los Angeles Times Staff Writer

July 20, 2004

JERUSALEM — An Israeli judge was killed in a drive-by shooting outside his home in a normally tranquil Tel Aviv suburb Monday evening, shocking even a country that has become greatly inured to violence. Authorities described it as the first known assassination of a judge in Israel's history.

A Palestinian militant group, the Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigade, claimed responsibility for killing Tel Aviv district court Judge Adi Azar, who was shot at point-blank range by a gunman on a motorcycle as the jurist sat in his car outside his home, according to police and witnesses.

Israeli officials expressed doubts that a Palestinian assailant with a nationalistic motive had carried out the attack. However, Azar presided over a case last year in which the Palestinian Authority was ordered to pay Israel's main bus company more than $15 million in damages in connection with terrorist attacks.

If Azar's killing were proved to have been carried out by a Palestinian militant group, it would represe nt a chilling, unprecedented tactic. In nearly four years of conflict, Israeli public figures have generally been immune to such attacks, although groups such as Hamas have often made threats against Prime Minister Ariel Sharon.

The only remotely similar case was the assassination of a right-wing Cabinet minister, Rehavam Zeevi, at a Jerusalem hotel in October 2001. The Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigade claimed responsibility for that killing.

Senior Israeli officials and some lawmakers receive protection akin to that provided by the Secret Service in the United States. Other than the killing of Zeevi, no close calls for Israeli public figures had been reported since the current Palestinian uprising erupted in September 2000.

"We are at the very beginning of this investigation," Tel Aviv police spokeswoman Shulamit Herzberg said. "It's too early to talk about background or motive."

Members of the judge's family found him slumped in his car moments after he had pulled up outside his h ome in the affluent neighborhood of Ramat Hasharon, Herzberg said. He had been shot three times in the head and chest, and medics were unable to revive him, Herzberg said.

Israeli Justice Minister Tommy Lapid quickly dismissed the notion that the killing of the 49-year-old judge might have been the work of Palestinian militants. "There is no suspicion that this was an act of terror," Lapid said shortly after the shooting, which occurred about 7 p.m.

Azar, balding and bespectacled, was described by some judicial officials as less a judge than a bureaucrat. According to Israeli news reports, his main duty was assigning cases to others rather than presiding over trials. In the courtroom, his work almost exclusively involved civil cases, they said.

The former law professor and magistrate had served on the Tel Aviv district bench since September 2002.

Gangland violence is common in Israel, and commentators noted that the judge lived in the same neighborhood as a suspected crime ki ngpin. But no evidence suggesting a link to organized crime immediately emerged.

In the Israeli news media, the killing was afforded as much coverage, if not more, as a serious terrorist attack would have received. Sharon expressed "deep outrage" and pledged that all measures would be taken to bring those responsible to justice.

A shaken Lapid reported the killing to parliamentarians. "It's shocking — it undermines the foundation of law," he said.

"This is the first time in Israel's history that a judge has been murdered," a grim-faced anchor on Israel's main evening newscast informed viewers, launching a lengthy special report on the case. Senior police officials were swiftly summoned to the scene.

Police described the killing as highly professional. Israeli television said neighbors had earlier reported a suspicious man in the neighborhood wearing the uniform of a security guard.

Police Commissioner Shlomo Aharonishki said there was no proof that the killing w as connected to the judge's work. "We need to be cautious, and examine all angles," he told Israeli journalists.

Azar was the presiding judge in two cases last year in which the families of terrorism victims and the Egged bus company sued the Palestinian Authority. The judge ordered a judgment of 72 million shekels, or about $18 million.

The judge's slaying drew quick calls for tighter guarding of judicial officials.

"This is so unexpected. But I always thought security should be upgraded," said a fellow judge, Dan Arbel. But he acknowledged that it would be difficult to protect all of Israel's more than 500 judges and magistrates.

Despite Azar's 2003 ruling involving the Palestinian Authority, intelligence sources said the claim by the Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigade did not appear credible.

Oded Granot, the main Arab affairs commentator for Israel television, noted that it came less than an hour after the killing — "suspiciously soon," he said.

Azar's family did not comment publicly, but the nanny to his two sons said she did not know of any enemies the judge might have had. "I never heard of any threats against him," Batsheva Nissani told television reporters.