JERUSALEM — An Israeli soldier was found guilty of manslaughter by a military court on Wednesday for shooting a Palestinian assailant in the head as he lay wounded on the ground, laying down a decisive marker in a case that has polarized Israelis and rocked the pedestal on which the military normally stands.
In a measure of the tensions surrounding the trial, which was mostly held in a small military court in Jaffa, near Tel Aviv, the verdict in the case of Sgt. Elor Azaria was handed down in a special court inside the walled and heavily guarded compound of the military’s headquarters in the Tel Aviv city center, to keep demonstrators at bay.
Video footage showed Sergeant Azaria smiling as he entered the courtroom to applause, and he was embraced by his family and friends. Hundreds of protesters gathered outside the compound, shouting slogans like “free the boy,” and they could be heard inside the courtroom.
During a reading of the verdict that went on for more than two and a half hours, the military judge, Col. Maya Heller, systematically and resoundingly rejected all of the main points of the soldier’s defense and said that there had been “no justification” for the shooting, according to reports from inside the courtroom. He is expected to be sentenced in about a month.
Describing Sergeant Azaria’s version, or versions, of the event as “twisting” and “evolving,” Judge Heller said the defense had tried to “hold the rope at both ends” by asserting on the one hand that the victim, Abed al-Fatah al-Sharif, appeared to pose a danger because he was still moving, and on the other, bringing medical witnesses who asserted that he was already dead by the time Sergeant Azaria shot him in the head.
The judge seemed to give great weight to statements Sergeant Azaria made at the scene, indicating he had acted not out of fear but for revenge.
A soldier testified that before the shooting, Sergeant Azaria had said, “How is it that my friend was stabbed and the terrorist is still alive?” After the shooting, a commander who was at the scene recalled Sergeant Azaria saying, “The terrorist deserved to die.”
The guilty verdict was expected to inflame Israelis who believed that Sergeant Azaria was being punished after having been put in an impossible situation, while an acquittal would have seriously damaged the prestige of the army’s top commanders.
The military’s high command immediately denounced the shooting in the West Bank city of Hebron in March, which was caught on video, calling it a grave breach of proper military conduct. But Israeli society was divided, and many hailed the soldier as a hero. A conscript serving as an army medic, he was 19 at the time.
Some right-wing politicians and celebrities asserted that the soldier’s fate had been prejudged in the hours after the event. Against the background of continued Palestinian attacks against Israelis, the soldier’s family and supporters mobilized widespread sympathy for his cause.
While the defense minister at the time, Moshe Yaalon, strongly backed the military high command, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu wavered, first condemning Sergeant Azaria’s actions and then phoning the soldier’s family to reassure them that he would be treated fairly. “As the father of a soldier, I understand your distress,” he told them.
Local television stations frequently showed images of Sergeant Azaria’s distraught parents hugging him in court. Appealing to public sentiment in a country blighted by wars and terrorism, and where most Jewish 18-year-olds are conscripted for up to 32 months of military service, his supporters portrayed him as “everybody’s child.”
In remarks recorded before the verdict, the military’s chief of staff, Lt. Gen. Gadi Eisenkot, tried to puncture that narrative. “An 18-year-old in the Israeli Army is not ‘everybody’s child,’ ” he said. “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 episode began when two Palestinian men stabbed and wounded an Israeli soldier at a checkpoint in the city of Hebron, in the Israeli-occupied West Bank. Israeli soldiers shot the Palestinians, killing one and wounding the other, Mr. Sharif, 21.
Sergeant Azaria arrived at the scene about six minutes later, by which time calm appeared to have been restored. Eleven minutes after the initial stabbing and shootings, the video showed, he cocked his rifle and shot Mr. Sharif as he lay on the road. Blood poured from Mr. Sharif’s head.
Lawyers representing Sergeant Azaria said he had acted to save his comrades, in the belief that Mr. Sharif, who was still moving, posed a threat and might have been concealing an explosive belt under his jacket.
But Sergeant Azaria did not warn the other soldiers or the medical staff nearby to move away from Mr. Sharif before shooting. Had Mr. Sharif been carrying explosives, critics said, the bullet could have detonated them.
During the trial, Sergeant Azaria’s company commander, Maj. Tom Naaman, said he “did not feel any danger” from Mr. Sharif.
“No one brought to my attention that the terrorist endangered anything,” he said, undercutting the defendant’s claims.
With the 50th anniversary of Israel’s occupation of the West Bank approaching, the case fueled a debate about military ethics and the place of the army in Israeli society.
Commentators said that in addition to Sergeant Azaria being on trial, the army’s value system was. The case has pitted the military’s commanders against right-wing politicians, who have publicly called for Israeli security forces to make sure that Palestinian assailants do not survive an attack.
Israeli, Palestinian and international rights groups have accused Israeli soldiers and police officers of being quick to pull the trigger and of an unspoken shoot-to-kill policy during the recent spate of deadly stabbings, shootings and car attacks by Palestinians.
The military has been clear about its rules on when soldiers can fire. It says that assailants must be quickly incapacitated, but that once neutralized they should not be killed.
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