JERUSALEM — An Israeli soldier who shot an incapacitated Palestinian attacker in the head was sentenced to 18 months in prison Tuesday, in a case that has divided Israelis and prompted calls for his pardon.
Colonel Maya Heller, a judge speaking on behalf of a military panel in Tel Aviv, reminded the defendant, Sergeant Elor Azaria, that his conviction for manslaughter was “grave” and that he could have faced up to 20 years in prison.
“The acts of the defendant are serious,” the judge said, according to a pool report from Israel Radio. “The accused damaged the purity of arms which is so holy” in the Israel military, she added. “There is a need to safeguard humanity.”
Azaria, now 20, was convicted in January by a panel of military judges for the death of Abdel al-Fatah al-Sharif in Hebron in March.
Widely shared video showed the sergeant shooting al-Sharif, who was lying still on his back, in the head. Al-Sharif and another Palestinian had stabbed and wounded an Israeli soldier at a checkpoint. Israeli soldiers killed the other man and wounded al-Sharif.
The case unfolded against a backdrop of random attacks by Palestinians using guns, knives, and vehicles that had killed at least 28 Israelis in a little over four months. The decision to prosecute Azaria rapidly emerged as a flashpoint in the debate over the Israeli military and its role as the nation’s conscience and most trusted institution.
Conservatives in Israel expressed outrage, with Naftali Bennett, the education minister, accusing the generals of being “quick to pounce on the soldier,” while others launched a bitter campaign against the defense minister, Moshe Yaalon.
Many Israelis said Azaria should not have been punished for putting his life on the line in the military; service is required for most young Israelis and is held in high esteem in the country.
Palestinians and Israeli rights advocates said the events showed a callousness to Palestinian life.
Heller noted that the defendant had a clean record but had not expressed any remorse.
Politicians, including Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, have called for Azaria to be pardoned, something that can be done only by the chief of staff or the president. Azaria’s lawyers have said they would appeal any sentence.