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A Negev farmer who shot and killed a Bedouin thief caught trespassing on his property was acquitted of manslaughter yesterday, for lack of sufficient evidence. The farmer, Shai Dromi, was convicted of lesser charges of gun possession and use of a firearm without a license.

Two years ago, suspecting that thieves had entered his property, Dromi picked up an unlicensed, loaded gun and went outside. He hid behind a nearby shed and when he spotted two prowlers he fired at them. The intruders, Khaled al-Atrash and Ayoub al-Hawashleh, started running away, but Dromi chased them and continued firing.

Hawashleh said the firing began with no warning. Atrash was hit by two bullets and died shortly afterward, while Hawashleh was hit by three bullets in the back and was seriously injured. He was later placed in intensive care.

Many Negev farmers came to the Be'er Sheva courthouse yesterday to show their support for Dromi. Bedouin activists, on the other hand, claimed that the farmer should have been tried for murder. "[Dromi] decided to take the law into his own hands and turn the Negev into the wild west," a Bedouin protester said.

District Court President Yehoshua Pilpel, who headed the judges' panel, said Dromi was acquitted for lack of sufficient evidence, due to the events that led up to the incident. He listed break-ins to farms in the south, which increased Dromi's fears. Dromi himself had previously filed 15 complaints for break-ins and damage to his farm.

Judge Rahel Barkai joined Pilpel in acquitting Dromi, while Judge Ariel Vago objected to the acquittal.

The court's acquittal on the more serious manslaughter charge touched off a deluge of criticism from Arab lawmakers and the family of the dead Bedouin. "Under the circumstances, there was no place to acquit Dromi and the fact is that one of the judges on the panel convicted him," said Ido Porat, the lawyer representing the family of Atrash. "It seems to me that it was easy for the judges to acquit Dromi because we are dealing with a man who really is the salt of the earth, and on the other hand we have a dead man who was a criminal."

"Giving license to kill an Arab was believed to be the domain of rightist politicians and what is referred to as the security forces," said MK Mohammed Barakeh, the head of the Hadash party. "After the Dromi verdict, it appears that the justice system also issues a license to kill."

"The significance of the verdict is that the wild west has been relocated to our neck of the woods," Barakeh said. "Every cowboy is a judge. In this instance, he is also the executioner. In order to deal with criminals, we have police and the trial process, not assorted gunslingers."