TEL AVIV — A military tribunal sentenced an Israeli soldier to 18 months in prison on Tuesday in the killing of a disarmed and wounded Palestinian attacker, noting that the army medic showed no remorse for pulling the trigger long after the attacker lunged at troops with a knife.
It was a deeply divisive punishment for an army sergeant whom many Israelis hailed as a hero for “neutralizing a terrorist.”
The months-long trial of Sgt. Elor Azaria was a rare prosecution of an Israeli soldier serving in the almost 50-year military occupation of the West Bank. Azaria was found guilty of manslaughter by the court in January.
Many Israelis said the only reason Azaria stood trial was the fact that the fatal shot was clearly captured on video by a Palestinian volunteer for an Israeli human rights group.
Naftali Bennett, Israel’s education minister and the leader of pro-settler party Jewish Home, called for an immediate pardon by Israel’s president, Reuven Rivlin.
“He cannot go to jail, or we will all pay the price,” Bennett said.
Israel’s defense minister, Avigdor Lieberman, said the court should be respected but added: “On the one hand there is an excellent soldier, on the other a terrorist who came to kill Jews, and we need to take both of these into account.”
The central fact of the case is not in dispute.
In March 2016, Azaria fired a bullet at close range into the skull of a Palestinian assailant as he lay wounded — sprawled on his back on a street in Hebron in the West Bank — minutes after slashing at soldiers with a knife and wounding one.
Azaria’s defense said he feared that the suspect, Abdel Fattah al-Sharif, might have been concealing an explosive device under his jacket.
On the video, ambulance drivers from the Jewish settlement and others could be heard shouting that the Palestinian was still a danger — even as Israeli military officers casually milled about, a few yards from the supine assailant.
The incident took place near a military checkpoint in Hebron, where 850 hard-line Jewish settlers, protected by 650 Israeli soldiers, live among 200,000 Palestinians. Jews and Muslims share a religious shrine in Hebron — and a mosque and a synagogue — where the faithful believe Abraham and the patriarchs of the faiths are buried.
It is one of the tensest places in the West Bank. Palestinians want the land for a future state. The Jewish settlers believe the land was given to them by God.
At the close of Azaria’s trial in January, the military judges dismissed Azaria’s claim that he feared for his safety.
“We found there was no room to accept his arguments,” said chief army judge Maya Heller, reading the decision by the three-judge panel.
“His motive for shooting was that he felt the terrorist deserved to die,” she said.
In the past two years, there have been dozens of cases of Israeli forces, including top commanders and private security guards, shooting Palestinian assailants and suspects at checkpoints and in riots.
Many of the incidents have been condemned by human rights groups and Palestinians. Few have been the subject of open investigations. None were prosecuted.
The Azaria case exposed the deep schisms in Israeli society, where many celebrated the 20-year-old sergeant as a national hero or, at worst, a soldier who made a mistake. Many say he should have been disciplined but never dragged into a courtroom.
The Israel Democracy Institute and Tel Aviv University released a survey last year of Jewish Israelis that found that 47 percent supported killing on the spot a terrorist who attacked Jews “even if he has been captured and clearly does not pose a threat.”
Israel’s military leaders said that discipline and “purity of arms” were core values for the army — and pressed for a court hearing. Retired officers said that Azaria was being railroaded.
Many ordinary Israelis took to calling Azaria “everyone’s son.” In Israel, military service is mandatory for most Jewish citizens, and the parents of soldiers are more involved than ever in making sure their teenage sons and daughters are well treated by the military.
During the trial, tensions spiked so high that military prosecutors and the three-judge panel received threats and required extra security.
The sentencing was moved from a courthouse in Tel Aviv’s Jaffa neighborhood to Israel’s version of the Pentagon, called the Kirya.
Outside, a few hundred supporters of the Azaria family gathered, as leaders with bullhorns condemned the media, the court and the military as “left-wingers.”
Azaria entered the courtroom smiling, to applause from friends and family. Before the judges spoke, Charlie Azaria, the soldier’s father and a retired veteran police officer, told supporters not to disrupt the proceedings.
“None of us have any expectations. We shall accept the sentence, whatever it may be,” he said.
The chief military judge announced the sentence of 18 months. The maximum for manslaughter is 20 years. Army prosecutors had initially recommended three to five years. Azaria’s defense team said he should be allowed to return to his family with time served.
The family showed no emotion at first. Later, they sang the Israeli national anthem.
Heller said the court took mitigating factors into consideration, saying the incident took place “in hostile territory.”
“We took note of the harm suffered by his family,” Heller said but added that Azaria had not expressed remorse for his actions.
Ester Shaked, one of the protesters outside the court, said: “The way the army is treating him is evil. I’m very shocked by this case. It wouldn’t happen in any other country. These terrorists came to kill us, and he protected us.”
Daniel, a teenager from a nearby high school whose teacher asked that his last name not be used, warned: “We won’t go to the army. We don’t think he’s guilty. This country is crazy for seeing him as guilty.”
The demonstrators also turned their anger toward Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Lieberman, who they said had lied to them and abandoned soldiers.
Israel’s minister of culture and sport, Miri Regev, called the sentence “difficult” and said, “This is a sad day.”
“Elor should not have to sit one day in jail in addition to what he has already endured,” she said.
Booth reported from Jerusalem.