TEL AVIV, Israel â€” An Israeli soldier was convicted of manslaughter on Wednesday in the deadly shooting of an incapacitated Palestinian attacker, capping a nine-month saga that has deeply divided the country.
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 the soldier’s conduct while much of the public, along with leading members of the nationalist ruling coalition, have rallied behind him.
With Sgt. Elor Azaria’s sentencing believed to be weeks away, the country now faces a heated debate over whether he deserves clemency. Within minutes of the verdict, leading politicians were already calling for him to be pardoned.
Azaria, an army medic, was caught on a cellphone 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 nearly three hours, Col. Maya Heller, head of 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.
She said that Azaria was an “unreliable” witness and had “needlessly” shot the assailant. She also said his defence witnesses were problematic.
“We found there was no room to accept his arguments,” she said. “His motive for shooting was that he felt the terrorist deserved to die.”
The defence team said it would appeal.
The 20-year-old 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, he stared gloomily ahead, and tensions quickly boiled over in the cramped, crowded courtroom.
Members of Azaria’s family clapped sarcastically as the decision was delivered, some screaming “Our hero!” A female relative was kicked out of the courtroom for screaming at the judges and calling the decision a disgrace. A second woman stormed out, shouting, “Disgusting leftists.”
After the judges walked out, Azaria’s mother, Oshra, screamed, “You should be ashamed of yourselves.” Azaria tried to comfort her and calm her as she wailed. 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, gathered outside the military court in Tel Aviv ahead of the verdict. The crowd, holding large Israeli flags and banners that said “the nation neglected a soldier on the battlefield” periodically scuffled with police.
While the verdict was being read, some demonstrators chanted a death threat against the Israeli army’s chief, Lt. Gadi Eizenkot, insinuating he would face the same fate of slain Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, assassinated 20 years ago by an ultranationalist Israeli.
“Gadi, Gadi, watch out. Rabin is looking for a friend,” the demonstrators chanted.
The crowd was quickly dispersed without any further violence.
The shooting occurred at the height of what has become more than a yearlong wave of Israeli-Palestinian violence.
Azaria’s defenders said he shot the assailant in self-defence, and hard-line politicians have said he should be either cleared or released with a light penalty. But his detractors, including senior military commanders, have said his actions violated the army’s code of ethics and procedures.
The uproar has put the army in a delicate position. Military service is compulsory for Israel’s Jewish majority, and there is widespread sympathy for soldiers, since virtually every family has a member who is serving or has served in the past.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who initially defended the military, later softened his position and called Azaria’s parents to console them.
The dispute helped fuel the resignation of Defence Minister Moshe Yaalon, who sided with the military, earlier this year. His successor, Avigdor Lieberman, visited Azaria in court. Education Minister Naftali Bennett, leader of the pro-settler Jewish Home Party, has also sided with Azaria and led the chorus calling for his pardon Tuesday.
Lieberman, who heads a hard-line nationalist party, said he disagreed with the “difficult” verdict but urged the public to respect the court’s decision. He said the defence establishment would do “everything it can” to help Azaria and his family.
“We must keep the army outside every political argument … and keep it in the widest consensus in Israeli society,” he said.
Miri Regev, a popular Cabinet minister from Netanyahu’s Likud Party and a former military spokeswoman, immediately called for Azaria to be pardoned. Shelly Yacimovich, a leading opposition lawmaker, also called for him to be released.
Israeli rights groups have accused the army of failing to prosecute soldiers who commit unnecessary violence against Palestinians, and trying a soldier for a crime as serious as manslaughter is virtually unheard of.
The rights group Yesh Din said it was just the second manslaughter case of a soldier since the second Palestinian uprising erupted in 2000. The first case involved the death of a British activist.
Sharon Gal, a spokesman for the Azaria family, accused the court of siding with human rights groups over a soldier on a battlefield.
“It was like the court was detached from the fact that this was the area of an attack. I felt that the court picked up the knife from the ground and stabbed it in the back of all the soldiers,” he said.
Lt. Col. Nadav Weissman, a military prosecutor, said this was “not a happy day.”
“We would have preferred that this didn’t happen. But the deed was done, and the offence was severe,” he said.
In Hebron, the slain Palestinian attacker’s father welcomed the decision.
“I feel good. It is fair. This is an achievement of the court that it condemned the soldier,” said Yousri al-Sharif.
Al-Sharif gathered with his family in his home to watch the verdict being read live on Israeli television.
“I was exhausted and tense,” he said. “I smoked two packs of cigarettes while watching the verdict.”
Follow Aron Heller on Twitter at www.twitter.com/aronhellerap
Aron Heller, The Associated Press