A young Israeli soldier who shot dead a Palestinian assailant lying wounded and motionless on the ground in the occupied West Bank was convicted of manslaughter on Wednesday in one of the most polarising cases in Israel’s history.
The decision to court-martial Sergeant Elor Azaria, who shot the Palestinian after the assailant stabbed another Israeli soldier last March, stirred public controversy in Israel from the start, with right-wing politicians calling after the verdict on President Reuven Rivlin to pardon the 20-year-old defendant, reports Reuters.
As the decision was being read at a heavily guarded military court in Tel Aviv, several hundred far-right backers of Azaria – one of them carrying a Donald Trump “Make America Great Again” banner – clashed with police outside the facility.
One of the two assailants was shot dead by troops. The other was shot and wounded. Eleven minutes later, as the wounded man, Abd Elfatah Ashareef, 21, lay on the ground incapacitated, Azaria shot him in the head with an assault rifle.
At the trial, Azaria contended that he believed the Palestinian, though motionless, still posed a danger because his knife was nearby, and that he might have been carrying explosives. “He deserves to die,” Azaria was quoted in the verdict as telling another soldier after pulling the trigger.
The three-judge panel rejected Azaria’s argument.
“One cannot use this type of force, even if we’re talking about an enemy’s life,” the court said in its verdict. “We unanimously convict the accused of manslaughter and of conduct unbecoming (a soldier).”
Azaria, who was smiling as he awaited the verdict with his parents beside him, sat emotionless as the chief judge read out the conviction. But his mother screamed “you should be ashamed of yourselves” as the panel left the bench. “Our hero!” relatives of Azaria chanted after the verdict was delivered.
With the 50th anniversary of Israel’s wartime capture of the West Bank approaching, the trial generated debate about whether the military, long seen as a melting pot for Israelis from a multitude of backgrounds, was out of touch with a public that has shifted to the right in its attitudes towards the Palestinians and ways of dealing with continuing violence.