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With Israel divided, court convicts soldier in killing of wounded Palestinian assailant

(Reuters)

An Israeli soldier was convicted of manslaughter Wednesday for fatally shooting an unarmed Palestinian assailant as he lay wounded — ending a trial that sharply divided Israel and could bring more showdowns as backers push for a hero-style pardon.

The 10-month trial of Sgt. Elor Azaria — a rare prosecution of a soldier for acts during unrest — cut deeply into Israel’s views on security and the role of the military, as well as its frustrations over the ceaseless conflict with Palestinians.

To some, the 20-year-old Azaria was a brave soldier facing danger in the West Bank town of Hebron in March. To others, he represented a worrisome disregard for military codes and human rights during a time of increased violence and hardening views among Israelis and Palestinians, with peace efforts effectively shelved.

During his personal testimony, Azaria told the court in July that he felt the supine assailant still posed a threat.

In the end, Judge Maya Heller called the shooting of Palestinian Abdel Fattah al-Sharif “needless.”

(Emad abu-Shamsiyah, B'Tselem)

“We found there was no room to accept his arguments,” said Heller, reading the decision by the three-judge panel in Tel Aviv. “His motive for shooting was that he felt the terrorist deserved to die.”

Outside the court building, scuffles broke out as several hundred right-wing protesters — who gathered to show their support for Azaria — tried to gain entrance to the court and turned their anger on journalists.

A manslaughter charge can carry a jail term of up to 20 years, although legal commentators have suggested a sentence of four to five years is more likely. Azaria’s lawyers said they would appeal, and some top Israeli leaders said they would seek a presidential pardon for the soldier.

Israeli President Reuven Rivlin, who has the sole power to grant pardons, left open that prospect. In a statement, he said a pardon would be considered only if it is requested “in accordance with standard practices and after recommendations from the relevant authorities.”

Azaria, an army medic, was videotaped on March 24 shooting the wounded and unarmed Sharif a short time after the Palestinian and a friend had attacked Israeli troops with knives, wounding one soldier. Both attackers were shot. One, Ramzi al-Qasrawi, died instantly.

But the video shows Sharif moving slightly, twitching his head and hand. It also captures Azaria pulling his rifle off his shoulder, aiming and firing at Sharif as a dozen soldiers, officers, medics, ambulance drivers and Jewish settlers mill about.

The incident took place in one of the tensest settings in the occupied West Bank — a military checkpoint that protects 850 of Israel’s most ideological Jewish settlers, who live in the heart of old Hebron surrounded by 200,000 Palestinians.

The shooting came during a wave of stabbing, shooting and vehicular attacks by Palestinians against Israeli civilians and troops. It probably would have faded away quietly were it not for the video, recorded by a Palestinian volunteer from the Israeli human rights organization B’Tselem and distributed to the media.

David Enoch, a professor in the faculty of law and philosophy at Hebrew University in Jerusalem, said that the trial and public debate surrounding it marked a “horrible deterioration in Israeli society.”

“It’s not as if racism or violence against Palestinians is new, but at least in the past there were attempts to be civilized. There was at least some sanity,” Enoch said. “Now, many of those asking for Azaria to be pardoned have not mistaken the facts of the case. They just see an Israeli Jewish soldier shooting a Palestinian terrorist, and they don’t care about anything else.”

Even before the verdict was read, some Israeli leaders, including senior government ministers, called for the soldier to be pardoned.

“He should not sit one day in jail. We expect the defense minister to stick to his promises and initiate an immediate amnesty for Azaria,” read a statement from the far-right Jewish Home party, headed by Education Minister Naftali Bennett.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu wrote on Facebook that he also supported a pardon for Azaria, calling the nation’s soldiers “our sons and daughters.”

At the start of the trial, before being appointed defense minister in May, Avigdor Lieberman came to the military court to show support for the soldier. He called the legal proceedings a “theater of the absurd” and wrote on Facebook that he hoped Azaria would be acquitted.

“It will be clear to everybody that it is the right of every Jew, and especially of a soldier, to protect himself from a terrorist who has come to kill him,” Lieberman wrote.

After the verdict, Lieberman told reporters: “This is a difficult judgment. But I ask of everyone, even those who do not like the judgment, to respect the legal decision and maintain restraint.”

But Azaria’s parents, Charlie and Oshra Azaria, and other members of his family left the hearing visibly upset and highly critical of the proceedings, accusing the army of abandoning their son.

Those inside the courtroom said Azaria’s mother cried and screamed at the judges: “You should be ashamed of yourselves.”

Sharon Gal, the family’s media adviser, said the judges “preferred B’Tselem’s version of events over the version of an [Israel Defense Forces] fighter.”

“I felt that the court picked up the knife from the ground and stabbed it in the back of all the soldiers,” said Gal, a former parliament member.

Military prosecutor Nadav Weissman said the verdict was “important, clear, decisive and speaks for itself.”

“This is not a happy day for us,” he said. “We would have preferred that this didn’t happen. But the deed was done, and the offense was severe.”

Azaria’s trial has been one of the most debated in Israeli history. It has raised harsh questions and doubts about the place of the army and its role vis-à-vis its young recruits.

Military service is mandatory for most ­Israelis at age 18, and after nearly 50 years of Israeli military occupation, society dictates almost blanket support for its troops even in tough ethical situations.

Throughout the trial, Azaria’s family and their supporters have repeatedly pointed out that Israeli parents send their most precious possession to the army in good faith. The trial’s outcome could determine how much faith other parents place in the military.

“I don’t think the trial will have a long-range effect on Israeli society or the army. It is a rare event. Commanders and soldiers know what the rules of engagement are. They know what the values of the army are,” said Asa Kasher, co-author of the Israeli army’s code of ethics.

He said there have been similar cases in both the U.S. and British armies.

“I think the legal and ethical norms of the Israeli army are on par with those of all other Western democracies, in particular the U.S. and U.K.,” he said.

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