Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said on Wednesday he supported pardoning a young Israeli soldier convicted of manslaughter for shooting dead a Palestinian assailant lying wounded and motionless on the ground 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 after the verdict on President Reuven Rivlin to pardon the 20-year-old defendant.
“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 giving amnesty to Elor Azaria,” Netanyahu said on his Facebook page.
Military commanders have condemned the soldier’s conduct while much of the public, along with leading members of the nationalist ruling coalition, have rallied behind him.
With Sergent Elor Azaria’s sentencing believed to be weeks away, the country now faces a heated debate over whether he deserves clemency.
In delivering the verdict, which lasted nearly three hours, Colonel Maya Heller, head of a three-judge panel, rejected Azaria’s defence in painstaking detail.
She said there was no evidence to support his contradictory claims that the attacker was already dead or that he posed any threat at the time.
“We found there was no room to accept his arguments,” she said.
“His motive for shooting was that he felt the terrorist deserved to die.”
Azaria faces a maximum penalty of 20 years behind bars, though he is not expected to receive that much time. The military said he would be sentenced on January 15 with the defence vowing to apeeal.
Members of Azaria’s family clapped sarcastically as the decision was delivered, some screaming “Our hero!”
A female relative was kicked out of the courtroom for screaming at the judges, and a second woman stormed out, shouting, “Disgusting leftists.”
After the judges walked out, Azaria’s mother, Oshra, screamed, “You should be ashamed of yourselves.”
Hundreds of the soldier’s supporters, many of them young religious men wearing skullcaps, gathered outside the military court in Tel Aviv ahead of the verdict. The crowd, holding large Israeli flags and banners, periodically scuffled with police.