Uproar as Israeli soldier found guilty of killing unarmed man
A young Israeli soldier has been convicted of manslaughter for killing a wounded Palestinian in a divisive military trial that immediately prompted calls from right-wing politicians for a pardon.
Sgt Elor Azaria (20) was found guilty in a courtroom inside the Israeli defence ministry in Tel Aviv yesterday as an angry crowd protested his innocence and scuffled with police outside.
The case is a rare example of Israel's military convicting one of its own troops in a killing. The last manslaughter conviction involved a sniper who shot a British civilian activist in 2003.
Sgt Azaria was arrested in March after video emerged of him shooting a wounded Palestinian man as he lay bleeding in the street in Hebron, a city in the occupied West Bank.
The Palestinian, 21-year-old Abdul Fatah al-Sharif, had stabbed an Israeli soldier moments before and had been shot but not killed by other troops. The mobile phone footage shows Azaria calmly cocking his rifle and firing once into the man's head. The defence tried to claim that Azaria thought the wounded man might have a suicide vest on and acted to protect his comrades, but their argument was rejected by a panel of military judges.
Col Maya Heller, the lead judge, said Azaria acted "calmly, without any urgency, in a calculated way" and was determined to kill the Palestinian in revenge for the stabbing attack.
The trial was one of the most divisive cases in recent Israeli history and even before the judge finished giving her verdict, the country's politicians started releasing statements.
Naftali Bennett, a cabinet minister and head of the far-right Jewish Home party, led a number of ministers in calling for an immediate pardon for Azaria. "Today a soldier was convicted like a criminal for killing a terrorist who tried to slaughter soldiers," he said.
Azaria has not yet been sentenced and faces a maximum of 20 years in prison. He can be pardoned by Israel's president.
He 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 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."
The baby-faced soldier has become a wronged hero to the Israeli right and hundreds of demonstrators gathered outside the court with posters of him and placards bearing slogans such as: "Don't leave any soldiers behind."
Among the demonstrators was Baruch Marzel, a prominent settler from Hebron who lives just a few streets from where the shooting took place. "I'm here to say thank you to Elor Azaria because he killed a terrorist that endangered my family directly," he said.
That view is widely shared in Israeli society and opinion polls taken after the shooting found that a majority believed he should not have been arrested, let alone convicted.
Other Israelis were dismayed by the killing, which came amid of wave of Palestinian attacks against Israeli troops and civilians in Jerusalem and the occupied West Bank.
The public debate pitted some of the military's most senior leaders against right-wing politicians, with Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli prime minister, caught awkwardly in the middle.
Both the head of the military and the defence minister at the time condemned the shooting as a breach of military discipline and an affront to the values of the Israeli Defence Forces.
"This is a case of a soldier who committed a loathsome act, not a hero," said Moshe Ya'alon, the former defence minister. "What do you want, an army that's become dehumanised and lost its moral fibre?"
Avigdor Lieberman, the current defence minister, said the verdict was "harsh" but said the country must "respect the court's ruling and show restraint".
Palestinians and some human rights groups said the shooting was an example of a widespread culture in which Israeli troops use excessive force against Palestinians.