A young Israeli soldier who shot a Palestinian assailant in the head when he was immobilized on the ground last year was sentenced to 18 months imprisonment on Tuesday, far less than prosecutors requested.
The decision to court-martial Sergeant Elor Azaria, who shot dead 21-year-old Abdul Fatah al-Sharif after he had stabbed another soldier in the occupied West Bank last March, has deeply divided Israel from the start, with opinion polls showing strong support for the army medic.
Azaria had told a colleague that Sharif, who had stabbed another soldier, “deserved to die”.
Military chiefs condemned his actions, but others praised them.
Azaria was found guilty last month of manslaughter by a Tel Aviv military court.
The landmark ruling against the now 20-year-old Azaria marked the first time a member of the IDF had been convicted of the charge in 12 years. The prosecution had sought a sentence of between three – five years, although manslaughter carries a prison sentence of up to 20 years under Israeli law.
The verdict marked a victory for commanders who said Azaria had violated the army’s code of ethics. But the soldier himself generated great support among the public, many of whom see him as a scapegoat for a misguided elite that has sought to harshly punish a soldier who they say responded to an armed attacker trying to kill other soldiers.
Israeli media commentators described the sentence as lenient. The court said that Azaria had not expressed regret for his crime but it noted that his army record had been unblemished up until the shooting and that his arrest had caused his family deep distress.
Palestinians had called for a life term. But there was little sign the sentencing would lead to any significant outbreak of violence by Palestinians. They have long accused Israel of using excessive force against lightly armed assailants and harbored few expectations soldiers would be held accountable.
It was not immediately clear if Azaria’s lawyers, who had said after the verdict last month that they intended to appeal his conviction, would still proceed along that path.
Eleven months ago, Azaria, then 19, was serving in the town of Hebron when two Palestinians carried out the stabbing. 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 Sharif lay on the ground incapacitated, Azaria shot him in the head with an assault rifle.
“DESERVES TO DIE”
At the trial, Azaria said 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.
At the sentencing, Chief Judge Maya Heller said that Azaria “took upon himself to be both judge and executioner”.
Surveys detected significant popular support for Azaria, and Netanyahu took the unusual step of calling the soldier’s parents to express his sympathy after he was arrested. In one poll, nearly half of Israeli Jews said any Palestinian who carries out an attack should be killed on the spot.
Rallies for Azaria, some backed by rightist politicians and pop singers, gathered momentum as the trial progressed.
But members of Israel’s military establishment argued that the shooting violated rules stating that soldiers can open fire only in life-threatening situations, and 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.
Video footage of the shooting, taken by a Palestinian human rights activist, showed the knife was not within Sharif’s reach, and no bomb was found.
The video was distributed to news organizations, ensuring that the incident drew international attention.