AN Israeli soldier has been convicted of manslaughter over the deadly shooting of an incapacitated Palestinian attacker, capping a nine-month saga which has left the country deeply divided.
The verdict, which marks an extremely rare case of an Israeli military court siding against a soldier over lethal action taken in the field, threatened to deepen the rift.
Military commanders have condemned Sergeant Elor Azaria’s conduct while the majority of the public, alongside leading members of the nationalist ruling coalition, have rallied behind him.
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With Azaria’s sentencing believed to be weeks away, the country now faces a heated debate over whether he deserves clemency. Indeed, after the verdict, leading politicians - including prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu - were calling for him to be pardoned.
Azaria, an army medic, was caught on a mobile phone video in March fatally shooting a wounded Palestinian attacker who had stabbed a soldier in the West Bank city of Hebron. The Palestinian, Abdel Fattah al-Sharif, was lying on the ground and already unarmed when Azaria shot him in the head.
In a verdict that stretched over nearly three hours, Colonel Maya Heller – who headed the three-judge panel – rejected Azaria’s defence in painstaking detail. She said there was no evidence to support his claim that the attacker was already dead or that the man posed any threat at the time,while also calling Azaria an “unreliable” witness who had “needlessly” shot the assailant.
She also said his defence witnesses were problematic.
“We found there was no room to accept his arguments,” said Heller. “His motive for shooting was that he felt the terrorist deserved to die.”
The defence team said it would appeal.
Azaria entered the court smiling and appearing confident, and he was embraced by a few dozen relatives and friends. But as the verdict was delivered, the 20-year-old stared gloomily ahead and tensions quickly boiled over in the courtroom.
Members of Azaria’s family clapped sarcastically as the decision was delivered, with one female relative expelled from the courtroom for screaming at the judges and calling the decision a disgrace. Another family member whipped his jacket at a female reporter, missing his target and instead hitting another relative.
Hundreds of the soldier’s supporters – many of them young religious men wearing skullcaps – had gathered outside the military court in Tel Aviv ahead of the verdict. The crowd, holding large Israeli flags and banners, periodically scuffled with police.
While the verdict was being read, some demonstrators chanted a death threat against the Israeli army’s chief, Lieutenant Gadi Eizenkot, insinuating he would face the same fate as former Israeli prime minister Yitzhak Rabin, assassinated 20 years ago by an ultranationalist Israeli.
The shooting by Azaria came at the height of what has become more than a year-long wave of Israeli-Palestinian violence. The soldier’s defenders had claimed that he shot the assailant in self-defence, but his detractors, including senior military commanders, have said his actions violated the army’s code of ethics and procedures.
In Hebron, the killed Palestinian attacker’s father welcomed the decision. “I was exhausted and tense,” said Yousri al-Sharif.
“I smoked two packs of cigarettes while watching the verdict.”