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Trial starts for Israeli soldier in killing of Palestinian

Israeli soldier Elor Azaria was comforted by his mother during a hearing at a military court in Tel Aviv on Monday.
JACK GUEZ/AFP/Getty Images
Israeli soldier Elor Azaria was comforted by his mother during a hearing at a military court in Tel Aviv on Monday.

TEL AVIV — An Israeli soldier went on trial for manslaughter before a military court on Monday after he was caught on video fatally shooting a wounded Palestinian attacker in the West Bank two months ago.

The rare case of an active serviceman being charged has polarized Israel, with defense officials criticizing the soldier’s conduct and large segments of the Israeli public rallying behind him.

The hearings opened Monday before the military court in Tel Aviv, where Sergeant Elor Azaria sat in the defendant’s bench as his mother wrapped her arms around him to comfort him.

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In its indictment, read aloud in the courtroom, the military prosecution said Azaria ‘‘acted in contrast to the rules of opening fire and without any operational justification.’’ It said the Palestinian, Abdel-Fattah al-Sharif, ‘‘did not present a clear and present threat’’ and that ‘‘the defendant caused the death of the terrorist Sharif illegally.’’

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Azaria was also charged with inappropriate military conduct.

Israeli media said the court urged the sides to seek a plea bargain over the next week. It was unclear whether they would reach a settlement, or how long the trial will last.

At the time of the March incident, the military said two Palestinians had been shot and killed while carrying out a stabbing attack that wounded an Israeli soldier.

But a video released later by an Israeli human rights group showed one of the attackers still alive after the initial shooting and Azaria firing at his head.

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The military said the man had been lying on the ground nearly motionless for six minutes before Azaria arrived. An autopsy determined the shot to the head was the cause of death.

The incident took place amid months of Palestinian attacks that have killed and wounded scores of Israeli security forces and civilians.

Palestinians have accused Israel of using excessive force against attackers who have already been halted or wounded, and in some cases, of killing innocent civilians. Activists have released a handful of amateur videos supporting the Palestinian claims, but the Hebron shooting is perhaps the strongest evidence of Israeli wrongdoing so far.

The case has divided Israel. Thousands of Israelis rallied last month in support of the soldier, accusing the government of abandoning him at a time of heightened conflict with the Palestinians.

Also on Monday, a Jewish settler group said it took over a multistory building in the Muslim Quarter of Jerusalem’s Old City.

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It was the latest move by nationalist Jews to acquire properties in order to ensure Arab areas of Jerusalem remain in Israeli hands under any future peace deal with the Palestinians. Some 1,000 Jews have moved into Arab areas of the Old City since the 1980s.

About four Palestinian families previously lived in the building that was taken over Monday, said Daniel Luria of the Ateret Cohanim settler group. He said three or four Jewish families, along with religious studies students, will move into the building after renovations.