Elor Azaria cracked a smile and his family broke out in song Tuesday moments after a military tribunal sentenced the Israeli soldier to 18 months in jail for killing a wounded Palestinian knife assailant last March in a case that has gripped national attention for nearly a year.
The decision comes a month and a half after the military court unanimously convicted Azaria of manslaughter, ruling that he had violated the military’s open-fire regulations when he shot the attacker, Abdel Fattah Sharif, in the head as Sharif was lying wounded on the ground and no longer a threat.
The politically charged case roiled Israel’s government, drove a rare wedge between Israeli public opinion — which is broadly sympathetic to Azaria — and the Israel Defense Forces top brass, and spurred international criticism of Israel. Outrage over the court-martial prompted death threats against Israel’s military chief of staff and led to the resignation of the defense minister.
After the sentencing, Cabinet ministers called for Azaria to be pardoned.
“It’s true that the soldier made a grave mistake. But when a soldier makes a mistake, he is still our soldier,’’ said Israeli Housing Minister Yoav Galant, who called for a pardon, speaking to Israeli reporters.
“This was a traumatic case that divided Israel between left and right over something that hurts the IDF and the state of Israel. It’s time to say: The army should come first, the country should come first. Let’s let this soldier go home and remove the burden of all of the difficulties of Israeli from his shoulders,’’ Galant said.
Relatives of Sharif denounced the sentence as too short.
My family rejects this. This verdict is wrong
“My family rejects this. This verdict is wrong,’’ said Fathi Sharif, an uncle. “The judge made a mistake when she gave the soldiers only a year and a half in prison. Other people who do the same thing get 20 years in jail.”
The sentence was substantially shorter than the prison term of three to five years requested by the military prosecution. The court also demoted Azaria, a sergeant at the time of the shooting, to the rank of private.
On Tuesday, the judges wrote that they took into consideration that the incident occurred in “hostile” territory — in the West Bank city of Hebron — in deciding on a minimal jail term. A manslaughter conviction carries a maximum 20 years in prison.
In convicting Azaria, the court ruled that the soldier acted because he believed Sharif deserved to die. The court rejected Azaria’s claim that he believed the assailant was about to carry out an attack.
The sentencing hearing was held in a courtroom inside Israel’s main military headquarters in Tel Aviv. After the chief judge, Col. Maya Heller, pronounced the sentence, Azaria’s family and supporters applauded and sang the Israeli national anthem.
“You’re a hero!” shouted Azaria’s father, Charlie. He embraced his son as family members and supporters in the courtroom continued to applaud. Azaria’s lawyers said they planned to appeal.
A senior official from the Palestine Liberation Organization called the sentence a travesty of justice. “This sentencing demonstrates the active devaluation of human life, especially the lives of Palestinians who have been oppressed and held captive by an Israeli occupation for far too long,” Hanan Ashrawi said in a statement.
In a video of the incident recorded by a Palestinian bystander and published by the Israeli human rights group B’Tselem, Azaria, a combat medic, was shown cocking an M-16 and walking deliberately in the direction of Sharif before opening fire. The shooting took place a few minutes after Sharif and a second Palestinian had attacked soldiers with knives.
Human rights activists welcomed Azaria’s court-martial but have complained it was a rare exception — that wider abuses in the occupied West Bank are never prosecuted. They have also accused Israeli right-wing politicians of inciting Azaria by encouraging the killing of Palestinians attackers amid waves of assaults carried out with knives, guns and automobiles in 2014 and 2015.
“This case was exceptional in its indictment,” Hassan Jabareen, director of the Israeli Arab human rights group Adalah, said in a statement. “The case, however, was unexceptional in its minimal sentence.”
The case revealed division within the Israeli government as well.
Former Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon and IDF Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Gadi Eisenkot said that Azaria had violated the military’s values. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called Azaria’s family as a show of support.
The hearings of the court-martial received daily coverage in the Israeli media. A survey of Israeli Jews by the Israeli Democracy Institute last year indicated that nearly two-thirds believed Azaria acted properly.
Several hundred supporters outside the military base chanted, “Death to terrorists,” during the sentencing and called on the army to release Azaria as soon as possible.
Israeli political commentators noted that the court was sympathetic to Azaria in the sentencing after handing down a harsh verdict.
“The fact that there was even a jail sentence is a signal to the right that the state isn’t going to wink and let this go by,” said Dahlia Scheindlin, an Israeli American public opinion expert. Still, she said, the punishment also shows a court that didn’t want to be seen as ruining Azaria’s life with a long prison term.
“They were trying to walk a fine line,” Scheindlin said.
Mitnick is a special correspondent.
2:50 p.m.: This article was updated with additional context and background.
8:45 a.m.: This article was updated throughout with Times reporting.
4:40 a.m.: This article was updated with additional background.
This story was originally posted at 2:55 a.m.