An Israeli military court convicted an Israeli soldier on Wednesday of manslaughter charges over the shooting death of a wounded Palestinian in March, the latest episode in a case that has split the country over whether the soldier’s action was justified.
After injuring an Israeli soldier, the attacker, Abd Fatah Al Sharif, 21, was lying on the ground already wounded by a gunshot when Sgt. Elor Azaria pulled the trigger on his rifle and fatally shot him in the head. A human rights activist recorded the attack on a cell phone and the video led to the charges against the 20-year-old officer. He could face 20 years in prison, unless a reprieve or appeal spares him, Haaretz reported.
Clashes between Azaria’s supporters, members of the Israeli right-wing, and police broke out outside the court in Tel Aviv as the verdict came down from the three judge panel.
The case has divided Israel, with many citizens, right-wing politicians and some celebrities rallying behind Azaria, saying he is being made a scapegoat and should be let off lightly. His actions, they say, were justified by the barrage of Palestinian violence and the general atmosphere of alarm in Hebron, a city where hundreds of Israeli settlers, under heavy army protection, live among some 200,000 Palestinians.
On the other side stand serving members of the military establishment, who say the shooting cannot be countenanced, that Azaria, who made far-right, anti-Palestinian postings on Facebook before being conscripted, acted in cold blood and outside military procedures.
“An 18-year-old man in the Israeli army is not ‘everyone’s child’,” Lieutenant-General Gadi Eisenkot, Israel’s military chief of staff, said on Tuesday, remarks that were seen as a rebuke to the public campaign in support of Azaria, whose mother was often shown in news photos hugging her son in court.
While acknowledging the “lively dialogue among the public and on the internet,” Eisenkot said the army was not elected by the public or shaped by popular surveys. “It has no effect on the command structure,” he said.
The case has prompted controversy from the outset. At the scene just before the shooting, the video shows Israeli settler leaders standing among the soldiers and seemingly directing their response.
Initially Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu backed his then defence minister, Moshe Yaalon, in his criticism of Azaria’s actions. But then Naftali Bennett, a far-right party leader in Netanyahu’s coalition who draws strong backing from the settler movement, came out in vocal support of Azaria.
Surveys show the public backs the soldier. In one poll, nearly half of Israeli Jews agreed that any Palestinian who carries out an attack should be killed on the spot. Palestinians were outraged, but their alarm hardly figured into the public debate in Israel, which dominated the airwaves and the internet.