An Israeli military court on Tuesday sentenced a soldier to 18 months in prison for shooting dead an injured Palestinian assailant, in a case that has rocked Israeli politics for a year.
Rightwing Israeli ministers immediately called for a pardon, while the Palestinian government and the victim’s family condemned the sentence as too lenient. Judge Maya Heller handed down the sentence a month after Elor Azaria, 21, was found guilty of manslaughter for killing Abdul Fatah al-Sharif as he lay on the ground in the southern occupied West Bank in March last year.
Heller said the panel of three judges had taken into account mitigating factors including the “harm suffered by his family” and the fact Azaria was in “hostile territory” when the shooting occurred. She added, however, that he had not expressed remorse for his actions.
Azaria will begin his sentence on March 5, the court announced.
He has already spent 10 months in detention at an Israeli military base and it was not immediately clear if Tuesday’s sentence includes time served. Azaria and his family didn’t react in court as the sentence was passed down.
The March 2016 shooting in the occupied West Bank city of Hebron was caught on video by a rights group and spread widely online. It showed Sharif, 21, lying wounded on the ground, shot along with another Palestinian after stabbing and wounding a soldier, according to the army. Azaria then shoots him in the head without any apparent provocation.
Azaria says he feared Sharif was wearing an explosive belt and could blow himself up, taking nearby soldiers and onlookers with him, a claim judges rejected.
– Calls for pardon –
The case, which came against the backdrop of a wave of Palestinian knife, gun and car-ramming attacks that erupted in October 2015, has stirred controversy. Some on the right have defended the soldier, a French-Israeli national, but military officials said the trial was important to maintain the institution’s reputation.
Azaria entered the packed courtroom around midday (1000 GMT) Tuesday to applause from friends. Dressed in military uniform and smiling broadly, he hugged family members and his girlfriend.
Around 100 rightwing demonstrators protested outside the court against the trial, an AFP photographer on the scene said. Before the judge entered, Azaria’s father Charlie told his supporters to respect the ruling. As the verdict was read out the family sat still but afterwards they sang the Israeli national anthem together.
It was not immediately clear if Azaria would appeal but rightwing education minister Naftali Bennett called for him to be pardoned.
“Israel’s security demands he be pardoned,” he said on Twitter. “Elor was sent to protect Israelis at the height of a wave of Palestinian terror attacks. He cannot go to jail or we will all pay the price.”
Culture Minister Miri Regev echoed the call for leniency, according to Israeli media, but there was no immediate reaction from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who has previously said he too favours a pardon.
A source close to President Reuven Rivlin, who could hand down the pardon, said no such request had been made as yet.
A spokesman for the Palestinian government, however, told AFP the sentence was a “green light to the occupation army to continue its crimes.”
– Verdict a ‘farce’ –
“A year and a half is a farce,” Sharif’s father Yusri told journalists at the family home near Hebron in the southern West Bank.
“What does a year and a half mean? Was he an animal to be killed like this, in this barbaric way?”
The trial opened last May at a military courtroom in Tel Aviv’s Jaffa district but later moved inside to a tightly-guarded military complex. Police have made arrests over online death threats against a judge and other officials and the army has assigned bodyguards to the three judges who convicted Azaria.
Another man was arrested on suspicion of inciting violence against armed forces chief of staff Lieutenant General Gadi Eisenkot, who ordered the prosecution.