An Israeli soldier who shot dead a wounded and incapacitated Palestinian assailant in the occupied West Bank was convicted of manslaughter on Wednesday, capping a nine-month saga that has deeply divided the country.
Hundreds of far-right protesters rallied in support of Sergeant Elor Azaria along a busy Tel Aviv street and some clashed with police outside an army base where the lengthy verdict was read out.
The crowd held large Israeli flags and banners that said “the nation neglected a soldier on the battlefield.”
Despite a campaign by Azaria’s family and rightist politicians criticizing the armed forces for putting him on trial at a time of Palestinian street attacks, members of Israel’s military establishment have condemned the soldier’s conduct, arguing that shooting in violation of regulations could not be countenanced.
A three-judge military court rejected the 20-year-old conscript’s arguments that he acted in self-defense.
The shooting was caught on video by a Palestinian rights activist, and the footage, distributed to news organizations, ensured the incident drew international attention.
Reading for 2-1/2 hours from the verdict, chief judge Colonel Maya Heller said Azaria shot the Palestinian out of revenge in March 2016 after the assailant stabbed and wounded a fellow soldier in the West Bank town of Hebron.
“He deserves to die,” Azaria was quoted in the verdict as telling another soldier, just after fatally shooting the Palestinian in the head as the man, who had been wounded minutes earlier by Israeli military gunfire, lay motionless in the street.
“One cannot use this type of force, even if we’re talking about an enemy’s life,” the court said in its verdict. “We unanimously convict the accused of manslaughter and of conduct unbecoming (a soldier).”
Sentencing will be handed down at a later date. Politicians from right-wing parties have already called on President Reuven Rivlin to pardon the soldier, who has been dubbed “everyone’s child” by the campaign supporting him.
The defense team said it would appeal the verdict.
The manslaughter charge carries a maximum penalty of 20 years’ imprisonment.