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Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Wednesday said he supported pardoning the young soldier convicted of manslaughter for shooting dead a wounded Palestinian assailant in the occupied West Bank.
The decision to court-martial Sergeant Elor Azaria, who shot the Palestinian after the assailant stabbed another Israeli soldier last March has stirred public controversy in Israel from the start, with right-wing politicians calling on President Reuven Rivlin to pardon the 20-year-old defendant after the verdict fell.
A poll published on Wednesday night by Israel’s Channel 2 television showed that 67 percent of respondents favour a pardon.
Just hours after Azaria was convicted, Netanyahu waded into the political debate by posting a comment on Facebook in which he said he supported pardoning the soldier.
“This is a difficult and painful day – first and foremost for Elor, his family, Israel’s soldiers, many citizens and parents of soldiers, among them me … I support granting a pardon to Elor Azaria,” Netanyahu said on his Facebook page.
Sentencing will be handed down at a later date. Azaria faces a maximum sentence of 20 years, but his defence team has already said it will appeal.
The country’s president, Reuven Rivlin, has authority to issue pardons but has said he will wait for the legal process to run its course before making a decision.
‘He deserves to die,’ Azaria said
Ten months ago, Azaria was an army medic serving in the Israeli-occupied city of Hebron when two Palestinians carried out the stabbing. Hebron has been a longtime flashpoint of violence, and the incident occurred during a wave of Palestinian street attacks on Israelis.
One of the two assailants was shot dead by troops. The other was shot and wounded. Eleven minutes later, as the wounded man, Abd Elfatah Ashareef, 21, lay on the ground incapacitated, Azaria shot him in the head with an assault rifle.
At the trial, Azaria contended that he believed the Palestinian, though motionless, still posed a danger because his knife was nearby, and that he might have been carrying explosives. “He deserves to die,” Azaria was quoted in the verdict as telling another soldier after pulling the trigger.
The three-judge panel rejected Azaria’s argument.
“One cannot use this type of force, even if we’re talking about an enemy’s life,” the court said in its verdict. “We unanimously convict the accused of manslaughter and of conduct unbecoming (a soldier).”
Video footage of the shooting, taken by a Palestinian human rights activist, showed the knife was not within Ashareef’s reach, and no bomb was found.
Azaria sat emotionless as the chief judge read out the conviction. But his mother screamed “you should be ashamed of yourselves” as the panel left the bench. “Our hero!” relatives of Azaria chanted after the verdict was delivered.
With the 50th anniversary of Israel’s wartime capture of the West Bank approaching, the trial generated debate about whether the military, long seen as a melting pot for Israelis from a multitude of backgrounds, was out of touch with a public that has shifted to the right in its attitudes towards the Palestinians and ways of dealing with continuing violence.