Israelis Split Over Soldier's Conviction for 'Needless' Killing of Wounded Palestinian Assailant

The shooting death is one of the most polarizing cases in Israel's history.

—JERUSALEM -- "You should be ashamed of yourselves," Sgt. Elor Azaria’s mother screamed today as the judges walked out of a military courtroom in Tel Aviv, Israel.

But her son, a 20-year-old Israel Defense Forces (IDF) medic, sat emotionless as the judge convicted him of manslaughter in one of the most polarizing cases in Israel's history. Azaria began the day with a grin on his face that had faded after a two-and-a-half-hour explanation of the verdict.

Another family member yelled, "disgusting leftists" and stormed out. Yet another could be heard calling out, “Tomorrow there is no IDF. The IDF is over," before being booted out of the courtroom. Other relatives clapped sarcastically, chanting "our hero" as the verdict was read.

Beyond any reasonable doubt, Col. Maya Heller said today in delivering the verdict, Azaria shot Abdel Fattah al-Sharif because he believed the Palestinian "deserved to die." Al-Sharif, 21, was shot and killed execution-style in Hebron in the occupied West Bank March 24, 2016, after allegedly attempting a stabbing attack.

Chilling cellphone video filmed by Israeli human rights organization B'Tselem shows Azaria cocking his weapon that day, taking aim and fatally shooting al-Sharif in the head after the Palestinian had already been critically wounded and lain motionless on the ground for 11 minutes without medical attention.

In the video, there's little reaction from Azaria's fellow soldiers, who are seen smoking and chatting before and after the shot rang out. They look relaxed in the video and had already disarmed al-Sharif of a knife.

Heller, head of a three-judge panel, dismissed the evidence presented by the defense team point by point and at great length today. "We found there was no room to accept his arguments," she said of Azaria.

The court found him an "unreliable" and "evasive" witness. Heller called the shooting "needless" and, when rejecting the argument that Azaria acted in self-defense, she was blunt: "The terrorist did not pose a threat."

At issue was why Azaria pulled the trigger: Did he act out of the fear of danger, as the defense argued? Or did he shoot out of anger and a desire for revenge, as the prosecution concluded?

Unanimously, the military panel ruled that the evidence pointed to the latter. The three military judges -- two legal professionals and a field commander -- agreed on the conviction of manslaughter after the months-long trial, the first manslaughter conviction for an active-duty IDF soldier in 11 years.

“The judges decided that it was an unjustified shooting,” Lt. Col. Nadav Weissman, one of the military prosecutors, said. "This is not a happy day for us. We would have preferred that this didn’t happen. But the deed was done, and the offense was severe.”

He added: The verdict is “important, clear, decisive and speaks for itself.”

Sharon Gal, the Azaria family’s media adviser, said the court "didn’t give any weight to the evidence. It was like the court was detached from the fact that this was the area of an attack. I felt that the court picked up the knife from the ground and stabbed it in the back of all the soldiers.”

Manslaughter carries up to 20 years in prison in Israel, but there's little expectation that Azaria will serve that long. He will be sentenced in a few weeks but his defense team has vowed to appeal the case and some right-wing politicians are already clamoring for a presidential pardon.

Naftali Bennett, leader of the pro-settler Jewish Home Party, called for an immediate pardon. “Today a soldier who killed a terrorist who deserved to die, who tried to slaughter [another] soldier, was placed in shackles and convicted as a criminal," he said.

Interior Minister Arye Dery, head of the ultra-Orthodox Shas party, said: “The court has done its work. I respect the verdict. From here forward, the correct approach is a pardon. The conduct of the trial and the suffering that the soldier and his family have experienced justifying the granting of a pardon.”

Culture and Sports Minister Miri Regev of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's Likud Party has already sent an official pardon request to the defense minister, according to newspaper Haaretz. “That’s not how you act toward a soldier [who belongs] to all of us," she said after the verdict.

In addition to a request from the defense minister, the chief military prosecutor must also submit an official request in order to allow Israeli President Reuven Rivlin to enact a pardon.

And for his part, Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman, who, prior to taking on that role, expressed his support for Azaria and attended an early court hearing, struck a diplomatic tone. "A tough court decision,” he said today. “We are all committed to honor the decision and to keep the calm."

Lieberman was an early supporter of the young sergeant, and he wasn't alone. Nearly every Israeli opinion poll since March has shown that most Israelis were against the trial of an IDF soldier. The trial pitted the country's military brass against right-wing politicians and, for many Israelis, Azaria became somewhat of a national hero.

Today, his supporters demonstrated, clashing with police at times, in Tel Aviv outside the court, holding up signs that read, "don't leave any soldiers behind" and "our nation is with you."

Fathi al-Sharif, the uncle of the Palestinian whom Azaria killed, told Haaretz, “The fact that the soldier is convicted of manslaughter isn’t such an important development from our standpoint. From the beginning, we stated that he had committed murder and needed to be convicted of murder. The fact that they changed the count of the indictment to manslaughter from our standpoint is a perversion of justice and of the court.”

In response, the Israeli army said that "throughout the process, the IDF [Israel Defense Forces] made sure to keep the legal procedures distinct from the operational ones. The IDF's legal system will continue to investigate the truth, independently and based on purely professional considerations in every case in which there is a suspicion of possible shortcomings or mistakes by the IDF and its soldiers."

International human rights groups cautiously praised the verdict, with Amnesty International calling it "a small glimmer of hope amid the rampant impunity for unlawful killings in the Occupied Palestinian Territories."

"It’s not just about potentially rogue soldiers, but also about senior Israeli officials who publicly tell security forces to unlawfully shoot to kill,” said Sari Bashi, Israel advocacy director at Human Rights Watch.

“Whatever the results of trials of individual soldiers, the Israeli government should issue clear directives to use force only in accordance with international law."