Israeli Soldier Found Guilty in Killing That Divided Country

  • Judges: Teen acted out of vengeance, not fear of more attacks
  • Netanyahu declares support for pardoning convicted soldier

An Israeli military court convicted a soldier of manslaughter for killing a wounded and immobilized Palestinian assailant, after a months-long trial that generated anguished national debate over ethics in the military.

The case of Elor Azaria was an explosive one, pitting Israelis against each other.

The case of Elor Azaria was an explosive one, pitting Israelis against each other.

JACK GUEZ/AFP/Getty Images

Sergeant Elor Azaria “needlessly” shot Abed al-Fatah al-Sharif in the West Bank city of Hebron last March because he believed he should die after attacking Israeli soldiers, according to a three-judge military panel in Israel Defense Forces headquarters in Tel Aviv. The judges rejected the idea that Azaria thought the man was wearing a bomb belt or might grab the knife he had just used to stab soldiers, which was still lying nearby.

The case was an explosive one, pitting those who saw Azaria’s actions as proof of growing extremism in Israeli society, against those who said he acted in self-defense or was justified in killing a man who had attacked Israelis. For Palestinians, the shooting symbolized what they say is the military’s excessive use of force against them. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said he would support a pardon for Azaria.

“The public response to the incident reveals a deep fracture in Israeli society,” Yohanan Plesner, president of the Israel Democracy Institute, said in e-mailed comments after the verdict. “A significant part of the Israeli public does not identify with the IDF’s code of ethics and its interpretation in practice by army officers.”

Military Conduct

The question of how Israel grapples with soldiers’ conduct in its 50-year occupation of the West Bank has become especially important after United Nations Security Council Resolution 2334, which condemned settlement building in territories such as Hebron that Israel won in the 1967 Middle East war. Legislators plan to discuss whether the Security Council resolution opens the door to a flood of claims against Israeli soldiers at the International Criminal Court in The Hague -- though Azaria’s conviction could blunt those calls by showing that Israel thoroughly investigates such claims itself.

“Today’s conviction is a positive step toward reining in excessive use of force by Israeli soldiers against Palestinians,” Sari Bashi, Israel advocacy director at Human Rights Watch, said in an e-mailed statement.

Speaking after the ruling, Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman said everyone must respect the “difficult” decision and should avoid politicizing the military. The judges in the case were assigned security guards after receiving threats on social media, Channel 2 reported.

Popular Support

When the incident occurred last March the army chief of staff, Lieutenant-Colonel Gadi Eisenkot, and then Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon condemned Azaria’s actions as a violation of open-fire regulations. Netanyahu initially supported the defense brass but backed off amid an outpouring of popular support for the soldier, even calling his father to offer sympathy. 

Netanyahu led a wide range of Israeli politicians who declared support for pardoning the soldier hours after the verdict was read. They included Education Minister Naftali Bennett of the Jewish Home party, which opposes a Palestinian state, and Shelly Yachimovich, a legislator from the opposition Labor Party.

“I support pardoning Elor Azaria,” Netanyahu said in a Facebook post Wednesday night, calling on citizens protesting the verdict and threatening the army chief of staff to “act responsibly.”

For many Israelis, Azaria was a hero who stood up to a terrorist at a time when the country faced a wave of stabbing attacks by Palestinians. One poll, known as the Peace Index, showed 65 percent of the Jewish public justified his act and believed he shot out of fear the assailant still posed a danger.

Azaria’s supporters demonstrated outside military headquarters as the lengthy verdict was delivered, with one holding a sign reading, “The people of Israel don’t abandon a soldier on the battlefield.” Some chanted threats against IDF chief Eisenkot, implying he could be assassinated.

A sentence in the case is expected in coming weeks, and Azaria has the right to appeal. The maximum sentence for manslaughter is 20 years, though the last soldier convicted of that crime was sentenced to eight years, the newspaper Haaretz reported.

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