A military tribunal in Tel Aviv on Wednesday convicted of manslaughter an IDF soldier who shot and killed an incapacitated Palestinian assailant, concluding a high-profile trial that deeply divided the country.
The verdict on Sgt. Elor Azaria, 19, was delivered by a panel of three judges at the army's Kirya headquarters, a change of venue from the Jaffa Military Court's usual meeting place in the city's south. Outside, scores of activists demonstrating in support of Azaria — among them far-right supporters of the Beitar Jerusalem soccer club — clashed with police and border guards dispatched to maintain order. Two people were arrested when protesters attempted to block Kaplan Street, a main avenue running outside the compound.
Azaria's trial saw politicians and current and former army generals alternately supporting or condemning the soldier's actions. Many of the army's top brass, as well as former defense minister Moshe Ya'alon, had railed against Azaria's "unethical" decision to shoot the assailant, Abdel Fattah al-Sharif, in the head nearly 15 minutes after the latter was shot and wounded as he attempted to stab an IDF soldier in Hebron.
In her lengthy decision, Judge Maya Heller tore into many of the defense's claims, after beginning with a description of the events leading up to the shooting and a summary of the indictment and defense. In the case of an acquittal, she would have been required to announce the verdict at the outset rather than after a preamble.
Dismissing one of the defense's key claims, she asserted, "We have adopted the conclusion that the terrorist's death was caused by the shooting by Azaria." She castigated the defense, which posited that Azaria had acted out of a sense that Sharif still posed a danger to his comrades while also making the apparently contradictory claim that he was already dead when Azaria shot him.
Citing testimony of Azaria's commanding officer and a paramedic, who recalled that upon arriving at the scene minutes after the attack, he had said Sharif "deserves to die," Heller said there was no indication Azaria felt threatened by the mortally wounded attacker, and that a member of the security forces had moved the knife away from the attacker minutes prior to shooting.
She added that the claim Azaria had reacted because Sharif was reaching for his knife was unacceptable, as video from the scene showed that the knife was out of reach. Moreover, she said, the claim that the footage from the field was doctored was baseless.
At the scene, "Elor didn't raise concern of a knife or a bomb as an explanation for the shooting, but rather that terrorists deserve to die," she maintained, terming Azaria's version, which changed several times over the course of the trial, "unreliable" and "problematic."
"There is no grounds for the claim of self-defense," she said. "Azaria's shooting was unjustified."
"The fact that the man sprawled on the ground was a terrorist, who had just sought to take the lives of IDF soldiers at the scene, does not in itself justify disproportionate action," Heller added.
Earlier, Azaria arrived at the court with his family and smiled as supporters thronged around him, giving the soldier hugs and wishing him well.
The last day of the court proceedings was closed to the general public, and no video or audio feed from the courtroom was provided. Azaria's family was among those permitted to be inside the courtroom when the verdict was read. Dozens of demonstrators, among them Likud MK Oren Hazan, braved the morning rain and gathered outside the complex to show support for the soldier.
Some held banners reading, "People of Israel do not abandon a soldier in the battlefield"; others held aloft signs in support of US President-elect Donald Trump. Security had been bolstered around the Kirya in expectation of riots in case of a conviction, and some 350 police officers were stationed there.
In a message posted to his Twitter account before the court decision, Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein called for national unity, no matter which way the ruling went.
"There are judges in the Kirya," he wrote. "Whatever their decision may be, we all need to respect it and act immediately to mend the deep rift that has opened between us."
Zionist Union MK Tzipi Livni echoed that sentiment in a Twitter statement in which she urged that politics be kept out of the way.
"In the moment before the decision, we need to show national responsibility and to agree on one thing: to respect the court decision whatever it may be and to strengthen IDF values and to leave it out of the political arena."
Right-wing politicians and hundreds of Azaria's supporters have insisted he was treated unfairly by left-wing elites in the army and media.
Thousands rallied for Azaria's release following his indictment in April, and his family have waged a fierce campaign against the trial and raised hundreds of thousands of shekels to cover legal costs.
Azaria was filmed shooting Sharif on March 24, 2016. The footage, which was published online shortly after the incident by the left-wing advocacy group B'Tselem, sparked an intense debate in Israel about military discipline and ethics in the midst of a wave of Palestinian terror attacks that began in September 2015.
Military prosecutors at first sought murder charges against Azaria, but the difficulty of proving the soldier's intent led to a reduced indictment for manslaughter. According to prosecutors, Azaria's actions explicitly contravened the IDF's rules of engagement, which stipulate, in accordance with Israeli law, that deadly force cannot be used once the assailant no longer poses an immediate threat.
Azaria's defense attorneys have argued that their client believed that Sharif still posed a threat to himself and his fellow soldiers, suspecting he may have been rigged with explosives.
Since his April 18 indictment, media attention has been intense, focusing on the testimony provided by fellow IDF soldiers and officers throughout the trial.
On Tuesday, IDF Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Gadi Eisenkot alluded to the case, rejecting the campaign slogan of Azaria's supporters that depicted him as "the child of us all."
"He is not our child.... He is a warrior, a soldier, who must dedicate his life to carry out the tasks we give him. We cannot be confused about this."
Speaking at a conference at the Interdisciplinary Center Herzliya, Eisenkot added: "This confusion in the Israeli discourse is a discourse that undermines the most fundamental values that we look for in our soldiers."
The army's live-fire rules in the West Bank, he said, "have not changed in a decade."
The last time an IDF soldier was convicted of manslaughter was in 2005, for the killing of British civilian Tom Hurndall two years earlier. The soldier, named only as Sgt. T., was sentenced to eight years in prison for manslaughter and six other charges. Manslaughter carries a maximum term of 20 years, but no minimum punishment.
By Stuart Winer, Alexander Fulbright and Ilan Ben Zion
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