• Elor Azaria: Israeli soldier convicted over killing of wounded Palestinian

    Jerusalem: In a trial that has split the nation, an Israeli soldier was found guilty of manslaughter on Wednesday for shooting and killing a Palestinian assailant as he lay unarmed and wounded on the ground in Hebron last March.

    As the verdict was read out, violence broke out among several hundred right-wing protesters who had gathered outside the military court in Tel Aviv to show support for the soldier, Sergeant Elor Azaria, 20.

    They, and many others in Israel, believe Azaria acted bravely killing a terrorist and should not have been put on trial for manslaughter but rather given a medal for his actions.

    “This is not how we should treat our soldiers. A trial should not have happened in the first place, we are talking about a combat situation in which a terrorist was killed,” said Culture Minister Miri Regev. She said she would push for Azaria to be pardoned.

    The Israeli military, however, has said consistently that he did not act in keeping with protocol, a reason that led to the guilty verdict on Wednesday.

    Azaria, an Israeli army medic, was caught on video shooting a wounded and prone Palestinian Abdul Fattah al-Sharif a short time after he, and a friend, had attacked Israeli troops with knives, wounding one soldier.

    Israeli forces had responded to the attack, which took place on March 24, by shooting both men. Ramzi al-Qasrawi died immediately. But the video shows Sharif moving slightly, twitching his head and hand. It also captures Azaria, an army medic, pulling his rifle off his shoulder, aiming and firing at Sharif as a dozen soldiers, officers, medics, ambulance drivers and Jewish settlers mill about.

    Azaria told the court in July that he had felt a clear and present danger from the assailant – a claim the court rejected on Wednesday. The judge, Colonel Maya Heller, said his testimony was “evolving and evasive”. She also said the video submitted to the court was authentic and rejected the claim that shooting the suspect had been necessary, calling it “needless”.

    In delivering her verdict, Colonel Heller systematically rejected all of Azaria’s defence arguments, saying “the fact that the man on the ground was a terrorist does not justify a disproportionate response”.

    Hundreds of the soldier’s supporters had gathered outside the military court in Tel Aviv ahead of the verdict. The crowd, holding large Israeli flags and banners that said “the nation is with you”, periodically scuffled with police.

    Azaria entered the courtroom with a big smile on his face, and was warmly greeted by relatives. But as Colonel Heller continued to deliver the decision, Azaria grew serious and his parents, seated next to him, appeared distraught.

    The incident took place in one of the most tense settings in the occupied West Bank – a military checkpoint that protects 850 of Israel’s most ideological Jewish settlers, who live in the heart of old Hebron surrounded by 200,000 Palestinians.

    It came during a wave of stabbing, shooting and vehicular attacks by Palestinians against Israeli civilians and troops. It would likely have slipped away quietly except for the video, filmed by a Palestinian volunteer from the Israeli human rights organisation Btselem and distributed to the press.

    Azaria’s trial, which started last April, has been one of the most discussed in Israeli history, drawing raw emotions and dividing society. It has also raised harsh questions and doubts about the place of the army and its role regarding its young recruits.

    The shooting occurred at the height of a more than year-long wave of violence between Israelis and Palestinians.

    The uproar over the case has put the army in a delicate position. Military service is compulsory for Israel’s Jewish majority, and there is widespread sympathy for soldiers, since virtually every family has a member who is serving or has served in the past.

    The dispute helped fuel the resignation of Defence Minister Moshe Yaalon, who sided with the military, earlier this year. His successor, Avigdor Lieberman, visited Azaria in court. Education Minister Naftali Bennett, leader of the pro-settler Jewish Home Party, has also sided with Azaria.

    After initially siding with the army, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu softened his position, taking the rare step of calling Azaria’s parents to console them and telling his father that “as the father of a soldier, I understand your distress”.

    He said the family should trust the military justice system to be “professional and fair”.

    But Azaria’s parents, Charlie and Oshra, have been highly critical of the proceedings, believing their son should not have been put on trial. They have accused the army of first abandoning and then trying to frame their son.

    Their campaign has included portraying Azaria as the son of the nation. Throughout the trial, the family has repeatedly said that Israeli parents send their most precious possession to the army in good faith. The trial’s outcome could now determine how much faith other parents place in the military.

    Israeli media has kept a close eye on the drawn-out proceedings, which saw a stream of witnesses and experts testifying for or against the soldier. Some noted that Azaria had posted far-right, anti-Palestinian messages on Facebook before being conscripted.

    On Tuesday, a day before the verdict, Israel’s military chief Gadi Eisenkot told a conference that “An 18-year-old man in the Israeli army is not ‘everyone’s child’. He is a fighter, a soldier, who must dedicate his life to carry out the tasks we give him. We cannot be confused about this.”

    The Azaria family said Eisenkot’s comments were misplaced and mistimed.

    A manslaughter charge can carry a jail term of up to 20 years, although legal commentators have suggested a sentence of four to five years is more likely.

    Washington Post, DPA

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