Tel Aviv: A soldier who shot dead a wounded Palestinian assailant as he lay on the ground posing no apparent threat was convicted of manslaughter Wednesday after a trial that deeply divided Israel.
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.
He now faces up to 20 years in prison.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said after the ruling that he favoured a pardon for the 20-year-old French-Israeli sergeant.
“This has been a hard and painful day for us all — first and foremost for Elor and his family,” Netanyahu wrote on Facebook.
“I support giving a pardon to Elor Azaria.”
Netanyahu made waves before the trial even began, by calling Azaria’s father to express his sympathy.
Earlier Wednesday, President Reuven Rivlin’s office issued a statement advising that any talk of a pardon was premature.
It said an application could only be made after the judicial process had run its course.
No date has yet been announced for sentencing, and Azaria could then appeal.
Judge Colonel Maya Heller spent more than two and a half hours reading out the court decision Wednesday, 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 his testimony “evolving and evasive”.
“His motive for shooting was that he felt the terrorist deserved to die,” she said.
Azaria had entered the courtroom smiling, applauded by family and supporters.
But he looked shaken as the judge spoke, and after the verdict his mother yelled: “You should be ashamed of yourselves.”
– Protests and scuffles –
Outside Israel’s military headquarters in Tel Aviv, where the court announced the verdict, dozens of Azaria supporters scuffled with police.
Shabtay Oz, a retired policeman carrying a large Israeli flag and protesting peacefully, said he never imagined himself joining a demonstration.
“But when I saw a soldier in cuffs after he shot a terrorist,” he said, slapping his hands together, “that was the point of no return.”
Right-wing leaders have called for him to be pardoned in an extraordinary public rift between politicians and the military.
Before he became 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 after Wednesday’s verdict said he disagreed with the decision but that it must be respected.
The March 24 shooting in the occupied West Bank city of Hebron was caught on video and spread widely online.
It showed Abdul Fatah al-Sharif, 21, lying on the ground, shot along with another Palestinian after stabbing and moderately wounding a soldier minutes earlier, according to the army.
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 toward him.
The Palestinian’s father told reporters in Hebron after the verdict that Azaria should be sentenced to life.
“For me, a just verdict will be one that is similar to the verdicts our sons (in Israeli prisons) get,” Yusri al-Sharif said.
– Polarised public –
The video was filmed by a Palestinian volunteer for Israeli rights group B’Tselem, which accused the security forces of “routine whitewashing” in a statement after the verdict.
“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 case galvanised the Israeli public, and television and radio stations interrupted their broadcasts to carry live coverage of the verdict.
It had been portrayed by some as a test of whether Israel’s military could prosecute one of its own, though many Palestinians dismissed it, arguing Azaria was only put on trial because of the video.
The military has said it began investigating before the release of the video.
The last time an Israeli soldier was convicted of manslaughter was in 2005, Israeli media reported.
The shooting came against the backdrop of a wave of Palestinian knife, gun and car-ramming attacks that erupted in October 2015.
Israeli security forces have been accused of using excessive force in certain other cases as well, though authorities say officers act appropriately to protect themselves and civilians.
Most of the attacks were by lone-wolf assailants, many of them young people, including teenagers. Israel’s military has said it believes a significant number of them were essentially on suicide missions.
The violence has greatly subsided in recent months.