JERUSALEM — In a trial that has split the nation, an Israeli soldier was found guilty of manslaughter Wednesday for shooting and killing a Palestinian assailant as he lay unarmed and wounded on the ground in Hebron last March.
As the verdict was read out, violence broke out among several hundred right-wing protesters who had gathered outside the military court in Tel Aviv to show support for the 20-year-old soldier, Sgt. Elor Azaria.
They, and many others in Israel, believe Azaria acted bravely killing a terrorist and should not have been put on trial for manslaughter but rather given a medal for his actions, which came during a spate of Israeli-Palestinian violence in Israel and the West Bank.
“This is not how we should treat our soldiers. A trial should not have happened in the first place, we are talking about a combat situation in which a terrorist was killed,” said Culture Minister Miri Regev. She said she would push for Azaria to be pardoned.
The Israeli military, however, has said consistently that he did not act in keeping with protocol, a reason that lead to the guilty verdict.
Azaria, an Israeli army medic, was caught on video shooting a wounded and prone Palestinian Abdul Fattah al-Sharif a short time after he, and a friend, had attacked Israeli troops with knives in the West Bank city, wounding one soldier.
Israeli forces had responded to the March 24 attack by shooting both men. Ramzi al-Qasrawi died immediately.
But the video shows Sharif moving slightly, twitching his head and hand. It also captures Azaria, an army medic, pulling his rifle off his shoulder, aiming and firing at Sharif as a dozen soldiers, officers, medics, ambulance drivers and Jewish settlers mill about.
Azaria told the court in July that he had felt a clear and present danger from the assailant — claim the court rejected on Wednesday. The judge, Col. Maya Heller, said his testimony was “evolving and evasive.” She also said the video submitted to the court was authentic and rejected the claim that shooting the suspect had been necessary, calling it “needless.”
The incident took place in one of the most tense 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.
It came during a wave of stabbing, shooting and vehicular attacks by Palestinians against Israeli civilians and troops. And would likely have slipped away quietly except for the video, filmed by a Palestinian volunteer from the Israeli human rights organization Btselem and distributed to the press.
Israel’s defense minister, Avigdor Lieberman, called the verdict “difficult,” but urged the public to respect the decision.
“We must keep the army outside every political argument . . . and keep it in the widest consensus in Israeli society,” he told reporters.
Azaria’s trial, which started last April, has been one of the most discussed in Israeli history, drawing raw emotions and dividing society. It has also 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, for many and after nearly 50 years of Israeli military occupation, society dictates blanket support for its troops even in tough ethical situations. Azaria’s situation is every Israeli parent’s nightmare.
Israel’s defense minister at the time, Moshe Yaalon said Azaria’s actions were “an utter breach of the army’s values and its code of ethics in combat.” He later resigned, partly because of the affair.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu initially backed Yaalon, but he quickly changed his views after right-wing members of his coalition spoke out in support of Azaria. They said the soldier should not have been brought to trial at all, that he was doing his job killing a Palestinian terrorist who had attacked soldiers. Some said he deserved a medal, or at the most a reprimand.
Netanyahu called to console Azaria’s father, telling him that “as the father of a soldier, I understand your distress.” He said the family should trust the military justice system to be “professional and fair.”
But Azaria’s parents, Charlie and Oshra, have been highly critical of the proceedings, believing their son should not have been put on trial. They have accused the army of first abandoning and then trying to frame their son.
Their campaign has included portraying Azaria as the son of the nation. Throughout the trial, the family has repeatedly said that Israeli parents send their most precious possession to the army in good faith. The trial’s outcome could now determine how much faith other parents place in the military.
Israeli media has kept a close eye on the drawn-out proceedings, which saw a stream of witnesses and experts testifying for or against the soldier. Some noted that Azaria had posted far-right, anti-Palestinian messages on Facebook before being conscripted.
On Tuesday, a day before the verdict, Israel’s military chief Gadi Eisenkot told a conference that “an 18-year-old man in the Israeli army is not ‘everyone’s child.’ He is a fighter, a soldier, who must dedicate his life to carry out the tasks we give him. We cannot be confused about this.”
The Azaria family said Eisenkot’s comments were misplaced and mistimed.
“On the eve of Elor’s sentencing, the IDF chief finds it appropriate again to bluntly interfere. He is coming out against the notion that we are sending the ones most dear to us to the army under the belief that they are being entrusted to commanders who are worthy of it,” said the family in a statement. “It is true that he is not everyone’s child, but he is everyone’s soldier.”
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.
Brian Murphy in Washington contributed to this report.