TEL AVIV // An Israeli soldier was convicted of manslaughter on Wednesday for executing an unarmed Palestinian man as he lay injured on the ground.
Army medic Elor Azaria was caught on video firing into the head of Abdul Fatah Al Sharif in Hebron in the occupied West Bank in March.
Colonel Maya Heller, head of a three-judge panel, said there was no reason for Azaria to open fire as Al Sharif posed no threat.
While some Palestinians welcomed the rare conviction of an Israeli soldier, human rights groups said the case only reached court because the video of the execution drew global attention.
Al Sharif’s family welcomed the verdict and called for Azaria to be given life in prison when he is sentenced later this year.
“For me, a just verdict will be one that is similar to the verdicts our sons [in Israeli prisons] get,” said Yousri Al Sharif, who watched the verdict live on Israeli television at the family home in Hebron.
“I feel good. It is fair. This is an achievement of the court that it condemned the soldier,”
In a verdict that lasted nearly three hours, Col Heller rejected Azaria’s defence in painstaking detail. She said there was no evidence to support his claim that the attacker was already dead or posed any threat at the time.
She said Azaria’s testimony was “unreliable” and that he had “needlessly” shot Al Sharif. She also said his defence witnesses were problematic and criticised the arguments of his lawyer.
“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.”
Azaria faces up to 20 years in prison. The defence team said it would appeal.
Azaria’s trial in the military court which began in May has divided Israel with right-wing politicians leaping to his defence despite army chiefs condemning his actions.
The 20-year-old Azaria entered the court smiling and confident, and he was embraced by relatives and friends. But as the verdict was delivered, he stared gloomily ahead, and tensions quickly boiled over in the cramped, crowded courtroom.
Members of his family clapped sarcastically as the decision was delivered, some screaming “Our hero!” and one female relative was kicked out of the courtroom for screaming at the judges.
In Hebron, Al Sharif’s family was joined by relatives of other alleged Palestinian attackers killed by Israeli security forces. Some held posters showing Azaria with “wanted” written in red and another demanded he be tried at the International Criminal Court.
The video footage of the March 24 shooting showed Al Sharif, lying on the ground, having been shot along with another man after allegedly stabbing and lightly wounding a soldier minutes earlier. Azaria then shoots Al Sharif again in the head without any provocation.
Israeli rights group B’Tselem said Azaria’s case only went ahead because of the video filmed by one of its Palestinian volunteers.
“The fact that one soldier was convicted today does not exonerate the Israeli military law enforcement system from its routine whitewashing of cases in which security forces kill or injure Palestinians with no accountability,” B’Tselem said.
“The exception of a much publicised trial, marked by a rare instance of video documentation, is not enough to change this norm.”
The rights group Yesh Din said it was only the second time a soldier had been convicted of manslaughter since the second Palestinian uprising started in 2000. The first case involved the death of a British activist.
A spokesman for the Palestinian government, Yousef Al Mahmoud, said the conviction only happened, “because the crime was documented on video and was transmitted on TV for the whole world to see.”
Hundreds of Azaria’s supporters, many of them young hardline religious men, gathered outside the military court in Tel Aviv ahead of the verdict. The crowd, holding large Israeli flags and banners that said “the nation neglected a soldier on the battlefield,” scuffled with police.
Some chanted death threats against the Israeli army’s chief, Lieutenant Gadi Eizenkot, insinuating he would face the same fate of Israeli prime minister Yitzhak Rabin, assassinated 20 years ago by an ultranationalist Israeli.
Prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu initially defended the military’s condemnation of Azaria but later softened his position and called fhe killer’s parents to console them.
The dispute helped fuel the resignation of defence minister Moshe Yaalon, who sided with the military, earlier this year. His successor, Avigdor Lieberman, visited Azaria in court and education Minister Naftali Bennett, leader of the pro-settler Jewish Home Party, led the chorus calling for his pardon.
Mr Lieberman, who heads a hard-line nationalist party, said he disagreed with the “difficult” verdict but urged the public to respect the court’s decision. He said the defence establishment would do “everything it can” to help Azaria and his family.
“We must keep the army outside every political argument ... and keep it in the widest consensus in Israeli society,” he said.
Sharon Gal, a spokesman for the Azaria family, accused the court of siding with human rights groups over a soldier on a battlefield.
“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,” he said.
Lt Col Nadav Weissman, a military prosecutor, said this was “not a happy day.”
“We would have preferred that this didn’t happen. But the deed was done, and the offence was severe,” he said.
The shooting occurred at the height of a year-long wave of violence in which Israeli security forces were accused of using excessive force to handle alleged attacks. Most of the incidents involved lone-wolf attacks by young, often teenage, Palestinians using knives.
The violence, which began in October 2015, killed 246 Palestinians and 34 Israelis, according to the Palestinian Maan news agency.
*Agence France-Presse and Associated Press
* Agence France-Presse