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Wednesday 22 March 2017

Israeli court gives soldier 18 months for fatal shooting of Palestinian attacker

Elor Azaria at a sentencing hearing in the military court in Tel Aviv (AP)
Elor Azaria at a sentencing hearing in the military court in Tel Aviv (AP)

An Israeli military court has sentenced a soldier to 18 months in prison for his fatal shooting of a Palestinian attacker who lay wounded on the ground, capping a legal saga that has deeply divided the country.

The sentence for Sergeant Elor Azaria, which included a year's probation and a demotion in rank, was lighter than expected. Prosecutors had asked for three to five years, and Palestinians dismissed the term as a "joke".

Several hundred protesters had gathered outside the Tel Aviv court hoping to see the soldier walk free. Azaria is to start serving his term on March 5, and politicians immediately called for him to be pardoned.

"Even if he erred, Elor should not sit in prison. We will all pay the price," said education minister Naftali Bennett, leader of the nationalist Jewish Home Party and an early supporter of the soldier.

The Palestinians said the sentence would encourage Israeli soldiers to use excessive force.

"This sentence is a joke, and it shows how much discrimination Israeli courts practise against Palestinians," said Issa Karaka, the Palestinian government minister for prisoners.

Azaria was convicted of manslaughter last month in a rare case of a military court ruling against a combat soldier for lethal action in the field.

The verdict marked a victory for commanders who said Azaria had violated the army's code of ethics, but the soldier generated great support among the public, many of whom see him as a scapegoat for a misguided elite punishing a soldier who they say responded to an armed attacker trying to kill other soldiers.

Azaria, an army medic, was caught in a video last March as he fatally shot the wounded Palestinian, just after the man stabbed a soldier in the West Bank city of Hebron.

The Palestinian, Abdel Fattah al-Sharif, was lying on the ground badly wounded and unarmed when Azaria shot him in the head.

The dead Palestinian's father, Yousri al-Sharif, said the sentence made a mockery of justice. "If one of us killed an animal they would have put him in jail for God knows how long. They are only making fun of us," he said.

Fathi al-Sharif, an uncle of the Palestinian, said: "It's not a punishment. This will encourage other soldiers to do the same."

The shooting occurred at the height of a wave of Israeli-Palestinian violence. Since September 2015, Palestinian attackers have carried out numerous stabbing and shooting attacks that have killing 41 Israelis and two visiting Americans.

During the same time, Israeli forces have killed 235 Palestinians, most of them attackers.

Palestinians and human rights groups have accused Israeli forces of using excessive force in some of the cases and even harming innocent people mistaken as attackers.

But in the absence of concrete evidence, they have been unable to prove these claims. The video of the Azaria shooting, taken by a Palestinian human rights activist, was the strongest evidence to date to support the Palestinian claims.

Azaria's defenders said he shot the assailant in self-defence, and hardline politicians said he should be either cleared or released with a light penalty.

"The prosecution was thirsty for Elor's blood and the sentencing proves that," Yoram Sheftel, one of the soldier's lawyers, said outside the court.

But his detractors, including senior military commanders, said his actions violated military 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. After the verdict last month, he called for Azaria to be pardoned.

The dispute helped fuel the resignation of defence minister Moshe Yaalon, a former military chief who sided with the army.

His successor, Avigdor Lieberman, visited Azaria in court during the trial. But since taking up the defence post, he has lined up behind the army. On Tuesday, he asked the public to respect the sentencing and urged "all sides to do what is necessary to put an end to this affair".

Dozens of the soldier's supporters outside the court chanted words of encouragement and waved banners reading: "Death to terrorists."

Azaria, 20, entered the court smiling and was greeted by applause from friends and relatives. He then had a long embrace with his mother and other family members.

Last month's verdict was accompanied by angry outbursts in the courtroom and protesters outside who briefly blocked streets and scuffled with police.

But reactions were more muted on Tuesday as Azaria's father Charlie took a more calming approach, asking supporters ahead of the sentencing not to disrupt the proceedings.

"None of us have any expectations, we shall accept the sentence whatever it may be," he said.

AP

Press Association

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