Clashes Erupt After Israeli Solider Is Convicted Of Manslaughter For Executing Wounded Palestinian Assailant

In 2016, the international community was outraged when a video clip recording showed a young Israeli soldier, Sargeant Elor Azaria, executing at point blank range a Palestinian assailant who lay wounded and motionless on the ground, after he stabbed another Israeli soldier in the occupied West Bank.

Azaria was an army medic serving in the Israeli-occupied city of Hebron - an overwhelmingly Palestinian town with a small but vociferous group of Jewish settlers living in the heart of the old town - when two Palestinians carried out the stabbing in March of 2016. Hebron has been a longtime flashpoint of violence, and the incident occurred during a wave of Palestinian street attacks on Israelis. One of the two assailants was shot dead by troops. The other was shot and wounded. Eleven minutes later, as the wounded man, Abd Elfatah Ashareef, 21, lay on the ground incapacitated, Azaria shot him in the head with an assault rifle.

Fast forward to Wednesday, when Azaria was convicted of manslaughter in what has proben to be one of the most polarizing cases in Israel's history. The decision to court-martial Azaria stirred public controversy in Israel from the start, with right-wing politicians calling after the verdict on President Reuven Rivlin to pardon the 20-year-old defendant. Even Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu got involved in the contentuous case, saying he supported pardoning Azaria in a post on his Facebook page.

"This is a difficult and painful day - first and foremost for Elor, his family, Israel's soldiers, many citizens and parents of soldiers, among them me ... I support granting a pardon to Elor Azaria," Netanyahu said on his Facebook page. According to Reuters, a poll published on Wednesday night by Israel's Channel 2 television showed that 67% of respondents favouring a pardon.

At the trial, Azaria contended that he believed the Palestinian, though motionless, still posed a danger because his knife was nearby, and that he might have been carrying explosives. "He deserves to die," Azaria was quoted in the verdict as telling another soldier after pulling the trigger.

He lied. The video footage of the shooting, taken by a Palestinian human rights activist, showed the knife was not within Ashareef's reach, and no bomb was found. The scandalous video was distributed to news organizations, ensuring that the incident drew international attention amid allegations by Palestinians and rights groups that Israeli soldiers have been using excessive force against lightly armed assailants.

The three-judge panel rejected Azaria's argument.

"One cannot use this type of force, even if we're talking about an enemy's life," the court said in its verdict cited by Reuters. "We unanimously convict the accused of manslaughter and of conduct unbecoming (a soldier)."

In delivering her verdict, the president of Jaffa Military Court, Colonel Maya 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'.

She said the 20-year-old's testimony had been 'evolving and evasive', and said she saw no reason for the soldier to open fire. She added there was no evidence to support his contradictory claims that the attacker was already dead or that he posed any threat at the time, telling him he 'couldn't have both sides of the stick'.

'We found there was no room to accept his arguments,' she said. 'His motive for shooting was that he felt the terrorist deserved to die.'

A relative of the soldier was thrown out of court, while a second stormed out after the verdict.

Azaria, who was smiling as he awaited the verdict with his parents beside him, sat emotionless as the chief judge read out the conviction although his mother screamed "you should be ashamed of yourselves" as the panel left the bench. "Our hero!" relatives of Azaria chanted after the verdict was delivered.

Elor Azaria, who would be convicted of manslaughter by the Israeli military, sits
to hear his verdict in a military court in Tel Aviv, Israel, January 4, 2017. REUTERS

With the 50th anniversary of Israel's wartime capture of the West Bank approaching, the trial generated debate about whether the military, long seen as a melting pot for Israelis from a multitude of backgrounds, was out of touch with a public that has shifted to the right in its attitudes towards the Palestinians and ways of dealing with continuing violence.

As the verdict was being read at a heavily guarded military court in Tel Aviv, several hundred far-right backers of Azaria - one carrying a Donald Trump banner - clashed with police outside the facility.

Hundreds of demonstrators today blocked a major Tel Aviv intersection close to the military headquarters where the trial was heard, and clashed with police. Journalists covering the demonstration say they were attacked by demonstrators,

Supporters of Elor Azaria clash with police during a protest outside the military
court in Tel Aviv on the verdict day for the soldier, Tel Aviv, Israel.

The reason why Azaria may have been in a good mood during the verdict is that according to surveys he had significant popular support for Azaria. In one poll, nearly half of Israeli Jews said any Palestinian who carries out an attack should be killed on the spot. But despite a campaign by Azaria's family and rightist politicians that described the conscript, 19 at the time of the incident, as "everyone's child", members of Israel's military establishment argued that the shooting violated rules stating that soldiers can open fire only in life-threatening situations.

Reactions to the court's decision showed how split the nation was over the case.

"They didn’t give any weight to the evidence," Sharon Gal, the Azaria family's media adviser, said after the verdict. "It was like the court was detached from the fact that this was the area of an attack. I felt that the court picked up the knife from the ground and stabbed it in the back of all the soldiers.”

On the other hand, Asa Kasher, co-author of the Israeli military's Code of Ethics, said the judges were meticulous. "(They found) that it was a most unacceptable action on the part of the soldier. It is legally unacceptable, it is ethically, morally - it's simply impossible to accept it," said Kasher, a professor of philosophy at Tel Aviv University.

Israel's defence minister, Avigdor Liberman, said he disagreed with the verdict, but called on the public to accept the court's decision. He said 'despite the difficult verdict, the defense establishment will do everything it can to assist the soldier and his family'. And he continued: 'We must keep the army outside every political argument... and keep it in the widest consensus in Israeli society.'

Ultimately, the public response reached all the way to the prime minister Netanyahu who at first backed up his then-defence minister Moshe Yaalon in his criticism of Azaria's actions. But then Naftali Bennett, a far-right party leader in Netanyahu's coalition who draws strong backing from Israeli settlers in the West Bank, came out in vocal support of Azaria. Netanyahu then took the unusual step of calling Azaria's parents to express his sympathy after the soldier was arrested.

Rallies for Azaria, some backed by rightist politicians and pop singers, gathered momentum as the trial progressed. But Tzipi Livni, a centre-left politician and former foreign minister, said after the conviction: "Brave and responsible leaders must stand behind the armed forces and its commanders today and say the verdict must be accepted.

"Only that way can we stop the bleeding within Israeli society since the event occurred and reunite around the military and Israel as a state of laws, whose army is outside political discourse."

And then there was the family of the slain Palestinian, whose family watched live television coverage of the 2-1/2-hour reading of the verdict.

"To say he is guilty is a good step, not bad, and we hope that the sentencing will be fair," Ashareef's father, Yousri, said. In a statement, the self-rule Palestinian Authority's Foreign Ministry said "the occupation's chain of command" must also be prosecuted, accusing it of inciting soldiers to kill.

Sentencing will be handed down at a later date. Azaria's lawyer said they would appeal to a higher military court. The manslaughter charge carries a maximum of 20 years' imprisonment but legal experts expect the sentence to be shorter.

Only Israel's president, Reuven Rivlin, has the authority to issue pardons but has said he will wait for the legal process to run its course before making a decision.