Thursday 5 January 2017

Israeli Soldier Convicted For Killing Wounded Palestinian In Hebron


A young Israeli soldier has been convicted of manslaughter for killing a wounded Palestinian but the verdict in the deeply divisive military trial sparked immediate calls from Right-wing politicians for the killer to be pardoned.

Sergeant Elor Azaria, 20, was found guilty in a courtroom inside the Israeli defence ministry in Tel Aviv as an angry crowd protested his innocence and scuffled with police on the streets outside.

The case is a rare example of Israel’s military convicting one of its own troops in a killing. The last manslaughter conviction was for a sniper who shot dead a British civilian activist in 2003.

Sgt Azaria was arrested in March after video emerged of him shooting a wounded Palestinian man as he lay bleeding in the street in Hebron, a flashpoint city in the occupied West Bank.

The Palestinian, 21-year-old Abdul Fatah al-Sharif, had stabbed an Israeli soldier moments before and had been shot but not killed by other Israeli troops. The mobile phone footage shows Sgt Azaria calmly cocking his rifle and firing once into the man’s head.

The defence tried to claim that Sgt Azaria thought the wounded man might have a suicide vest on and acted to protect his comrades but their argument was rejected by a panel of military judges.

Colonel Maya Heller, the lead judge, said he acted "calmly, without any urgency, in a calculated way” and was determined to kill the Palestinian in revenge for the stabbing attack.

The trial was one of the most divisive cases in recent Israeli history and even before the judge finished giving her verdict the country’s politicians started releasing statements.

Naftali Bennett, a cabinet minister and head of the far-Right Jewish Home party, led a number of government ministers in calling for an immediate pardon for Sgt Azaria. "Today a soldier was convicted like a criminal for killing a terrorist who tried to slaughter soldiers,” he said.

The sergeant has not yet been sentenced and faces a maximum of 20 years in prison. He can be pardoned by Israel’s president.

Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli prime minister, said he supported pardoning the convicted soldier.

"This is a difficult and painful day for all of us - first and foremost Elor and his family, many citizens and parents of soldiers, myself included," he said.

He called on Israeli citizens to "act responsibly" towards the military and its leadership even if they disagreed with the verdict.

The baby-faced soldier has become a wronged hero to the Israeli Right and hundreds of demonstrators gathered outside the court with posters of him and placards bearing like: “Don’t leave any soldiers behind”.

Many of the protesters were from La Familia, a group of football ultras with political ties, and at one point they burst through police lines to block traffic on one of Tel Aviv’s busiest streets.

Among the demonstrators was Baruch Marzel, a prominent settler from Hebron who lives just a few streets from where the shooting took place. “I’m here to say thank you to Elor Azaria because he killed a terrorist that endangered my family directly,” he said.

That view is widely held in Israeli society and opinion polls taken after the shooting in March found that a majority believed he should not have been arrested, let alone convicted.

Other Israelis were dismayed by the killing, which came amid of wave of Palestinian attacks against Israeli troops and civilians in Jerusalem and the occupied West Bank.

The public debate pitted some of the military’s most senior leaders against Right-wing politicians, with Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli prime minister, caught awkwardly in the middle.

Both the head of the military and the defence minister at the time condemned the shooting as a breach of military discipline and an affront to the values of the Israeli Defence Forces (IDF).

“This is a case of a soldier who committed a loathsome act, not a hero,” said Moshe Yaalon, the former defence minister. “What do you want, an army that’s become dehumanised and lost its moral fibre?”

But government ministers and other politicians sided with the young soldier and accused the military brass of politicising the trial with their comments.

Avigdor Lieberman, the current defence minister, said the verdict was “harsh” but called said the country must “respect the court’s ruling and show restraint”.

“I call on the public not to lambast the IDF and the defence establishment,” he added. Mr Lieberman, who leads a small Right-wing party went to the court in solidarity with Sgt Azaria before becoming defence minister.

Palestinians and some human rights groups said that the shooting was just one example of a widespread culture in which Israeli troops use excessive force against Palestinians.

“The problem is not just one rogue soldier but also senior Israeli officials who publicly tell security forces to unlawfully shoot to kill,” said Sari Bashi, Israel advocacy director at Human Rights Watch.



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