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Sgt. Elor Azaria, who shot and killed a wounded attacker in Hebron, has been found guilty of manslaughter by a three-judge panel in the Tel Aviv Military Court on Wednesday in one of the most polarizing trials in Israeli army history.
Israeli politicians called for the soldier to be pardoned and Azaria's lawyer vowed to appeal the ruling. The months-long trial has highlighted deep rifts in Israeli society. Hundreds protested outside of the courtroom in Tel Aviv ahead of the verdict, clashing with police, counter-protesters and media.
At the decision reading, the judges said Azaria killed the wounded terrorist without any reason. The cause of the infamous Hebron shooting was not that he felt threatened, said the head of the panel.
Following the conviction, Defense Minister Lieberman said "this is a difficult verdict" that he was not pleased with, but "I ask we all respect the court's ruling and show restrains. What is important – despite the harsh verdict – is that the defense establishment help the family and this soldier. I call on the public not lambast the IDF and the defense establishment. We must respect the ruling."
While reading from the court's decision, Justice Maya Heller seemed to reject the defense, saying Azaria's testimony was unreliable. The judge seemed to accept the prosecution's case and rejected the defense's two central claims that the Palestinian assailant was already dead and that Azaria felt threatened at the time of the shooting, saying "you can't have it both ways."
"The terrorist did not pose a threat," Heller said, adding that Azaria failed to act in accordance with Israeli army protocols.
Azaria, now 20, an Israeli Defense Forces medic, shot and killed Abd Fatah al-Sharif in Hebron in March last year. The shooting was captured on video by a Palestinian human rights activist and widely distributed. At the time of the shooting, Sharif was lying on the ground motionless after being shot while attempting to stab an Israeli soldier.
Following the verdict, Fathi al-Sharif, the uncle of the attacker who was killed by Azaria, 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.”
Sharif added: “The question that remains open is what sentence will be imposed on him, and we don’t have many expectations. It’s clear that he will receive a light sentence or be pardoned, because we are following [the developments] and understand the pressures being exherted upon the system and the sympathy that the soldier has been attracting in Israeli society.”
In response, the army said that "throughout the process, the IDF 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.
"Azaria's commanders will support the soldier and his family in any way needed. The army will continue forcefully while preserving the IDF's values and giving supporting soldiers for the security of Israel.
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The Military Court criticized the "expert testimony" of former IDF generals on behalf of Azaria, calling them "regrettable" and "ill-informed." They also had harsh words for what they called the misleading testimony of settler security officials and medical staff present at the shooting.
Israeli military establishment supported putting Azaria on trial for the killing, a move that was vociferously condemned by the country’s right wing, which believes that Azaria is innocent of any criminal offense and should be exonerated.
Azaria’s case revolved around his mental state. Did he shoot the terrorist, as he claimed, because of the sense of danger he felt, or did he do it with malice aforethought and a vengeful motive, as the military prosecution attributes to him? Thus, the judges’ decision to convict or acquit Azaria, will in fact resolve – at least in the judges’ eyes – the reason for the shooting.
The line argued by Azaria’s lawyers throughout the trial was that he acted deliberately to kill Sharif due to the danger he posed to military personnel and civilians at the scene.
President Reuven Rivlin may face a request to pardon him. Procedure stipulates that the defense minister and chief military prosecutor must both submit a pardon request to the president, who has the authority to pardon Azaria if such a request is submitted to him.
Education Minister Naftali Bennett has already stated that Azaria should be granted an immediate pardon. In private talks, Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman has not ruled out that possibility either.
Military law also allows for the sentence of someone convicted in military court to be reduced at the request of the IDF chief of staff or the officer commanding one of the general commands.
While the maximum sentence for manslaughter by law is 20 years, it is not expressly reasonable that the sentence, if Azaria is convicted, will come even close to so long an imprisonment. The last soldier convicted of manslaughter was Taysir Heib, a member of the Bedouin reconnaissance battalion, who shot and killed British citizen Tom Hurndall. He was sentenced in 2004 to eight years, and he ended up serving six-and-a-half years.
The wide-ranging repercussions of the affair were unforeseen when the trial began. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu initially condemned Azaria’s actions, but later called the family and considered inviting them to his home. Then-defense minister Moshe Ya’alon ended up leaving his post, in part over the issue, and nearly every politician, from both right and left, has pronounced on Azaria’s guilt or innocence.
Azaria’s defense attorneys have expressed doubt about the ability of the head of the judges’ panel, Colonel Maya Heller, to rule objectively on the issue. They argued in their summation that Heller had toed the line of the prosecution and made unbalanced rulings. IDF Chief of Staff Gadi Eisenkot, however, has consistently stated that he has full faith in the integrity of the commanders, investigators and judges.
Just two days ago, Colonel Heller was appointed to the Military Court of Appeals in a ceremony attended by President Reuven Rivlin and Lieberman, who prior to his appointment as defense minister was one of Azaria’s most outspoken supporters.
Lieberman even sat in the back of the courtroom at one of the remand hearings, and wrote on his Facebook page that the military prosecutor was adhering to “a distorted version of events in which the soldier from Hebron is guilty of manslaughter.”
Sharon Gal, a former Knesset member from Lieberman’s Yisrael Beiteinu party, was appointed spokesman of the Azaria family and organized a support rally for Azaria in Rabin Square. Lieberman’s statements have moderated since he became defense minister. Today he argues that Azaria should be supported, even if he erred.