An Israeli military court on sentenced a soldier to 18 months in prison for shooting dead a Palestinian attacker who lay wounded on the ground, capping a nearly year-long saga that has deeply divided the country.
Yesterday’s sentence, which included a year’s probation and a demotion in rank, was lighter than expected. Prosecutors had asked for a prison term of three to five years. Palestinians dismissed the sentence as a “joke”.
Yet it still triggered disappointment from several hundred protesters who had gathered outside the Tel Aviv court and had hoped to see the soldier walk free. Sgt Elor Azaria is to start serving his term on 5 March, and politicians immediately called for him to be pardoned. “Even if he erred, Elor should not sit in prison. We will all pay the price,” said education minister Naftali Bennett, leader of the nationalist Jewish Home Party and an early supporter of the soldier.
The Palestinians, meanwhile, said the light sentencing only encouraged Israeli soldiers to use excessive force.
“This sentence is a joke, and it shows how much discrimination Israeli courts practice against Palestinians,” said Issa Karaka, Palestinian government minister for prisoners.
Azaria was convicted of manslaughter last month in a rare case of a military court ruling against a soldier for lethal action taken in the field.
The verdict marked a victory for commanders who said Azaria had violated the army’s code of ethics. But the soldier himself generated great support among the public, many of whom see him as a scapegoat for a misguided elite that has sought to harshly punish a soldier who they say responded to an armed attacker trying to kill other soldiers.
Azaria, an army medic, was caught on a cellphone video last March as he fatally shot the wounded Palestinian, just after the man stabbed a soldier in the West Bank city of Hebron. The Palestinian, Abdel Fattah al-Sharif, was lying on the ground badly wounded and already unarmed when Azaria shot him in the head.
The dead Palestinian’s father, Yousri al-Sharif, said the light sentence made a mockery of justice. “If one of us killed an animal they would have put him in jail for God knows how long. They are only making fun of us,” he said.
Fathi al-Sharif, an uncle of the slain attacker, said the sentence was too light. “It’s not a punishment,” he said. “This will encourage other soldiers to do the same.”
The shooting occurred at the height of what has become more than a yearlong wave of Israeli-Palestinian violence. Since September 2015, Palestinian attackers have carried out numerous stabbing and shooting attacks that have killing 41 Israelis and two visiting Americans. During the same time, Israeli forces have killed 235 Palestinians, most of them attackers.
Palestinians and human rights groups have accused Israeli forces of using excessive force in some of the cases and even harming innocent people mistaken for attackers. But in the absence of concrete evidence, they have been unable to prove these claims. The video of the Azaria shooting, taken by a Palestinian human rights activist, was the strongest evidence to date to support the Palestinian claims.
“Sending Elor Azaria to prison for his crime sends an important message about reigning in excessive use of force,” said Sari Bashi, Israel and Palestine advocacy director at Human Rights Watch. “But senior Israeli officials should also repudiate the shoot-to-kill rhetoric that too many of them have promoted, even when there is no imminent threat of death. Pardoning Azaria or reducing his punishment would only encourage impunity for unlawfully taking the life of another person.”