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Israeli court convicts soldier of fatally shooting wounded Palestinian assailant

Supporters of Israeli soldier Elor Azaria protested outside the courthouse in Tel Aviv where the 10-month trial was held.
Supporters of Israeli soldier Elor Azaria protested outside the courthouse in Tel Aviv where the 10-month trial was held.ODED BALILTY/ASSOCIATED PRESS

JERUSALEM — An Israeli soldier was convicted of manslaughter Wednesday for fatally shooting an unarmed Palestinian assailant as he lay wounded, ending a trial that sharply divided Israel and could bring more showdowns as the soldier’s supporters push for a hero-style pardon.

The 10-month trial of Sergeant Elor Azaria — a rare prosecution of a soldier for acts during unrest — cut deeply into Israel’s views over security, the role of the military, and frustrations over the ceaseless conflict with Palestinians.

To some, the 20-year-old Azaria was a brave soldier facing danger in the West Bank town of Hebron last March. To others, he represented a worrisome disregard for military codes and human rights during a time of increased violence among both Israelis and Palestinians, with peace efforts effectively shelved.

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During his personal testimony, Azaria told the court last July that he felt the supine assailant still posed a threat.

Ultimately, Judge Maya Heller called the shooting of Palestinian Abdul Fattah al-Sharif needless.

‘‘We found there was no room to accept his arguments,’’ said Heller, reading the decision by the three-judge panel in Tel Aviv. ‘‘His motive for shooting was that he felt the terrorist deserved to die.’’

A manslaughter charge can carry a jail term of up to 20 years, although legal commentators have suggested a sentence of four to five years is more likely. Azaria’s legal team said they would appeal, and some top Israeli leaders said they would find a way to arrange a pardon from the president, who has the sole power to make such an order.

Israel’s president, Reuven Rivlin, left open that chance. In a statement, he said a pardon would be considered only if it is requested in ‘‘accordance with standard practices and after recommendations from the relevant authorities.’’

Azaria was videotaped on March 24 shooting the wounded and unarmed Sharif a short time after the Palestinian and a friend had attacked Israeli troops with knives, wounding one soldier. Both attackers were shot. One, Ramzi al-Qasrawi, died instantly.

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But the video shows Sharif moving slightly, twitching his head and hand. It also captures Azaria pulling his rifle off his shoulder, aiming, and firing at Sharif.

The shooting came during a wave of stabbing, shooting, and vehicular attacks by Palestinians against Israeli civilians and troops. It would probably have slipped away quietly except for the video, filmed by a Palestinian volunteer from the Israeli human rights organization Btselem and distributed to the media.

Even before the final verdict was read, some Israeli leaders, including senior government ministers, called for the soldier to be pardoned.

‘‘He should not sit one day in jail. We expect the defense minister to stick to his promises and initiate an immediate amnesty for Azaria,’’ read a statement from the ultra-right Jewish Home party, headed by Education Minister Naftali Bennett.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu wrote on Facebook that he also supported a pardon for Azaria, calling the nation’s soldiers ‘‘our sons and daughters.’’

Azaria’s parents, Charlie and Oshra, left the hearing visibly upset and highly critical of the proceedings. Those inside the courtroom said Azaria’s mother cried and screamed at the judges: ‘‘You should be ashamed of yourselves.’’

Sharon Gal, the family’s media adviser, said the judges ‘‘preferred Btselem’s version of events over the version of an [Israeli Defense Forces] fighter.’’

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‘‘I felt that the court picked up the knife from the ground and stabbed it in the back of all the soldiers,’’ said Gal, a former parliament member.

Military prosecutor Nadav Weissman said the verdict was ‘‘important, clear, decisive, and speaks for itself.’’

‘‘This is not a happy day for us. We would have preferred that this didn’t happen. But the deed was done, and the offense was severe,’’ he said.