BRUTAL SOLDIER: The three-judge panel said there was no reason for Azaria to open fire
TEL AVIV: An Israeli soldier who shot dead a wounded Palestinian protester as he lay on the ground posing no apparent threat was convicted of manslaughter on Wednesday after a trial that deeply divided the country.
The soldier, Elor Azaria, had been on trial in a military court since May, with right-wing politicians defending him despite top army brass harshly condemning his actions.
Sentencing is expected at a later date. He faces up to 20 years in prison.
Judge Colonel Maya Heller spent more than two and a half hours reading out the decision, sharply criticising the arguments of Azaria’s lawyers.
On behalf of the three-judge panel, Heller said there was no reason for Azaria to open fire since the Palestinian was posing no threat.
She called Azaria’s testimony “evolving and evasive.”
Azaria’s demeanour drastically changed as the judge read the verdict.
Dressed in a green army uniform, he had entered the courtroom smiling, with family members and supporters applauding him.
But he and his family later looked shaken as the judge spoke, with his mother and father huddling together.
After the verdict, his mother yelled: “You should be ashamed of yourselves”.
Azaria was 19 at the time of the killing in March 2016 in the city of Hebron in the occupied West Bank.
In a sign of the tensions surrounding the case, dozens of protesters scuffled with police on Wednesday as they gathered outside Israel’s military headquarters in Tel Aviv, where the verdict was announced.
They held a sign that read: “People of Israel do not abandon a soldier in the battlefield”.
The shooting set off intense political debate, with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu having earlier called Azaria’s father to express his sympathy.
Others on the right have called for him to be pardoned in an extraordinary public rift between politicians and the country’s military.
Before he became Israeli defence minister in May, Avigdor Lieberman was among those showing strong support for Azaria, including attending one of his court appearances.
He has since backed away from his earlier stance and, immediately after Wednesday’s verdict, said he disagreed with the decision but that it must be respected.
“I call on politicians to stop attacking the security establishment and the army and its chief of staff,” he said.
Others however from what is seen as the most right-wing government in Israeli history maintained their hardline position. “He’s our son, our child,” Culture Minister Miri Regev told Israeli television, saying Azaria should not have faced a criminal trial.
The case burst into public view when a video of the March 24 shooting emerged and spread widely online. The video showed Abdul Fatah al Sharif, 21, lying on the ground, shot along with another man. Azaria then shoots him again in the head without any apparent provocation.
His lawyers argued the soldier may have thought the Palestinian was wearing explosives, but others said he had already been checked for a suicide belt and no one in the video appears to be acting with caution towards him. — AFP