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Israeli Court Convicts Soldier In Shooting Death Of Palestinian Attacker

Jan 4, 2017
Originally published on January 4, 2017 3:26 pm
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An Israeli military court convicted an army medic of manslaughter today for killing a Palestinian man who tried to stab a soldier. The attacker was lying on the ground wounded. The shooting was caught on video, and the case has deeply divided Israelis. NPR's Joanna Kakissis reports.

JOANNA KAKISSIS, BYLINE: As three judges in Israeli military court delivered the verdict against 20-year-old Sergeant Elor Azaria, hundreds of his supporters were gathering in protest.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED CROWD: (Chanting in Hebrew).

KAKISSIS: Israeli news video showed them chanting God is with him outside the Defense Ministry in Tel Aviv. The court said Azaria needlessly killed a wounded Palestinian assailant last year in March. The Palestinian man, Abdel Fattah al-Sharif, had tried to stab an Israeli soldier in the occupied West Bank but was shot and wounded. Eleven minutes later as Sharif lay motionless, Azaria shot him in the head. An activist filmed the killing, and the video went viral.

Yoaz Hendel is a former combat soldier and the head of an Israeli think tank, The Institute for Zionist Strategies. He says the verdict sends a message that Israelis expect moral conduct even in a tense situation.

YOAZ HENDEL: This is a soldier. This is an Israeli part of us. But in order to live here, you need to be strong enough physically and ethically.

KAKISSIS: But he says that message is not resonating in Israel. Instead, he says that many Israelis cannot understand why Azaria is being punished.

HENDEL: For them, it's very easy to see the reality in black and white. It's peace or war. It's - you are pro the soldier or against the soldier. You are against the terrorist or pro the terrorist.

KAKISSIS: At the Mahane Yehuda market in Jerusalem, a 60-year-old businessman named Hezi Costica says he believes Azaria's version of events that he shot Sharif because he thought the Palestinian had a bomb, though it turned out that he didn't.

HEZI COSTICA: (Through interpreter) Even if it had been my son - and I have sons in the army - I would have asked him to do the same. This verdict won't be forgiven for generations to come. We need to support a soldier who does whatever possible to defend his country.

KAKISSIS: Yoga teacher Kady Harari says the verdict tore her apart.

KADY HARARI: I have no words. I was in a taxicab. I heard the news. And I'm going to cry.

KAKISSIS: She says it's divisive and dangerous to punish a soldier she says is defending Israel.

HARARI: I don't think it's unifying Israel at all in the least to see something like this. We're supposed to have each other's backs.

KAKISSIS: But photographer Eyal Warshavsky says loyalty should not come at all costs. He says it's better for Israelis in the long run if their military shows it respects the law.

EYAL WARSHAVSKY: You're not a freelance gunner when you're in these situations. And there are rules of conduct that you have to keep and to obey because that's the law.

KAKISSIS: An Arab member of the Israeli parliament says there are other cases of wrongful killings that the military should be prosecuting. Sharif's family told the Associated Press that the verdict was an achievement by the court. Azaria's set to be sentenced on January 15. He faces a maximum of 20 years in prison. His lawyers say they will appeal.

He may not ever serve jail time. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu says he supports pardoning the soldier. But that's up to the Israeli president, who says he wants some time to let the courts continue to work. Joanna Kakissis, NPR News, Jerusalem. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.