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Soldier convicted of fatally shooting Palestinian in case that deeply divided Israel

Israel Defense Forces Sgt. Elor Azaria with his parents in military court in Tel Aviv on Jan. 4, 2017.
Israel Defense Forces Sgt. Elor Azaria with his parents in military court in Tel Aviv on Jan. 4, 2017.
(Heidi Levine / Associated Press)

An Israeli military tribunal has convicted a medic of manslaughter in the fatal shooting of a hobbled Palestinian assailant in March — a verdict that spurred public protests and a call from the prime minister for a pardon.

Abdel Fattah Sharif, who had carried out a stabbing attack on a soldier in the West Bank city of Hebron, had been shot and wounded by Israeli soldiers and incapacitated on the ground when Sgt. Elor Azaria fatally shot him in the head.

Azaria testified that he feared Sharif was wearing an explosives belt or would grab a nearby knife and start attacking bystanders.

But the three-judge panel rejected that account and unanimously ruled Wednesday that the 20-year-old soldier had violated the military’s open-fire regulations.

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“We found that there was no place to accept his arguments,’’ the chief judge, Col. Maya Heller, said during a verdict reading that lasted more than two hours at the Israel Defense Forces headquarters in central Tel Aviv. “His motive for shooting was that he felt the terrorist deserved to die.”

Azaria, who was also found guilty of behavior not befitting a soldier, could face a 20-year jail term if the manslaughter conviction is upheld. His attorneys said they planned to appeal.

At the same time, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and other politicians called for a pardon. “This is a difficult and painful day for all of us, first and foremost for Elor and his family, for IDF soldiers, for many citizens, and for parents of our soldiers — myself included,’' Netanyahu wrote on his Facebook page.

Also writing on Facebook, Education Minister Naftali Bennett said: “Today a soldier who killed a death-deserving terrorist who tried to butcher a soldier was put in handcuffs and treated like the worst of criminals.”

A pardon can be issued only by the president, Reuven Rivlin. His office released a statement saying that any request would be considered in accordance with standard practices.

The case has captivated the country since the Israeli human rights group B’Tselem released a video that showed Azaria cocking his gun, walking up to Sharif and shooting him in the head.

An Israeli military tribunal has convicted a medic of manslaughter in the fatal shooting of a hobbled Palestinian assailant last March — a verdict that spurred public protests and a call from the prime minister for a pardon.

The military is one of the country’s most trusted institutions, but its decision to prosecute Azaria — a rare case of a soldier being disciplined for a killing committed during operations — was met with widespread disdain.

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A September poll by the Israel Democracy Institute and Tel Aviv University found that 65% of Israeli Jews supported Azaria’s actions and believe that he acted in self-defense. From 2015 until the middle of last year, the country was roiled by a spate of deadly knife attacks.

As the verdict was being read, hundreds of Azaria supporters from the far-right staged a demonstration, chanting, “Death to terrorists” and “He’s a hero.”

“Today Elor, tomorrow, your son,” read protest signs. Demonstrators said that the judges had unfairly sided with the military.

“The verdict is outrageous,” said David Kadosh, an unemployed waiter. “The open-fire rules are absurd. This is a war.”

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The protesters weren’t the only ones unhappy with the trial. The case had attracted widespread attention abroad and calls for intervention from the international community.

The Palestinian Authority’s Foreign Ministry called the trial a “farce’’ meant to mollify the critics and avoid an international prosecution.

In Hebron, an uncle of Sharif said that his family rejected the court decision and that the International Criminal Court should take up the case. “The court did nothing but condemn,” said Fathi Sharif, a family spokesman. “We want him to be punished.”

The military chief of staff, Lt. Gen. Gadi Eisenkot, has been the leading proponent within the military for a court-martial. While politicians have argued that any attacker should be killed rather than arrested, Eisenkot has held that lethal force should be used only in a life-threatening situation.

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“An 18-year-old man who enlists in the IDF is not everyone’s son,” he said on the eve of the verdict, as if to prepare for the fallout.

At first, Eisenkot had support from key members of the government, including Netanyahu. But that changed as public opinion coalesced around Azaria.

Last year, Netanyahu replaced the defense minister, Moshe Yaalon, who had angered the public by supporting prosecution, with Avigdor Lieberman, who slammed it.

After the verdict was announced, Lieberman told reporters that it should be respected even though he didn’t like it.

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Human Rights Watch, which said that 150 Palestinians have been killed by Israeli security forces since October 2015, said the conviction was a positive step in reining in excessive force.

“However, the problem is not just one rogue soldier but also senior Israeli officials who publicly tell security forces to unlawfully shoot to kill,” the organization said in a statement.

See the most-read stories in World News this hour »

Mitnick is a special correspondent.

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UPDATES:

12:35 p.m.: This article was updated with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu calling for Azaria to be pardoned and other reaction.

This article was originally published at 6:25 a.m.


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