[ Ed. note – The Palestinian Foreign Ministry, has responded to the verdict by calling Azaria’s trial a “show trial.” ]
BETHLEHEM (Ma’an) — An Israeli military court Wednesday convicted an Israeli soldier of manslaughter for the execution-style shooting of a severely wounded Palestinian in the flashpoint area of Hebron’s Old City in the southern occupied West Bank.
Elor Azarya, now 20, was the only Israeli official to be charged with the death of a Palestinian in 2016 —when at least 111 Palestinians were shot and killed by Israeli forces and settlers, according to Human Rights Watch.
According to rights group Yesh Din, of the 186 criminal investigations opened by the Israeli army into suspected offences against Palestinians in 2015, just four yielded indictments.
The case of Azarya and the killing of 21-year-old Abd al-Fatah al-Sharif was caught on film by Israeli NGO B’Tselem and received widespread condemnation from rights groups and the UN who condemned the incident as an “extrajudicial execution” of al-Sharif who had already been shot for allegedly attempting to stab another soldier.
Ayman Odeh, member of the Israeli parliament’s Joint List political bloc — representing parties led by Palestinian citizens of Israel in the Knesset — told Ma’an Wednesday that the “main difference in this case was the presence of cameras which documented the crime thanks to B’Tselem.” The court notably ruled Wednesday that B’Tselem’s videos were authentic and admissible.
Odeh stressed that there have been hundreds of similar crimes and that “the rulers of Israel are the occupation’s criminals who produced murderers like Azarya.”
A report released this week by Human Right Watch further documented evidence that Israeli authorities have endorsed a “shoot-to-kill” policy against Palestinians since a wave of unrest began in October 2015, that has left 246 Palestinians and 34 Israelis killed since.
The three-judge panel handed down the sentence for the case, which was being monitored by an International Criminal Court prosecutor as a sign of credibility of Israel’s legal system.
Violent clashes reportedly broke out in front of the courtroom between Israeli police and hundreds of demonstrators who were protesting against the likely conviction, chanting: “Azarya was born free,” “the people of Israel support and salute this hero,” and “Muhammad is dead,” according to reports from social media and Israeli outlets.
Amid the more than two-hour-long lead up to the final verdict’s announcement, social media reports from Israeli journalists inside the courtroom were already predicting a conviction due to the Israeli judge Maya Heller’s detailed refutation of every claim made by Azarya’s defense team.
While the defense has argued Azarya believed the immobilized man could have reached for a knife or had been concealing explosives underneath his jacket, the judge said she completely accepted prosecution’s argument that the soldier committed an unjustified revenge killing for the Palestinian’s alleged attempted attack.
Azarya’s version has been thoroughly contradicted during the duration of the trial by his commandersand experts, who stated that al-Sharif did not constitute a threat at the time of his death, and that him wearing a jacket was not suspicious given the weather that day.
The judge pointed out that the trial had already proven the knife was too far from al-Sharif’s body, who was immobile and severely wounded on the ground after already being shot, and Azarya himself had changed his story a number of times and had been evasive to cross examinations throughout the trial.
Heller reportedly addressed the defense team saying, “you can’t have it both ways,” as they have attempted to claim that al-Sharif was already dead when Azarya shot him while simultaneously arguing the soldier felt threatened.
She also noted his statement after the shooting, that the “terrorist deserves to die,” saying that it carried “serious significance,” and called the “expert testimony” of former Israeli army generals on behalf of Azarya “regrettable” and “ill-informed”.
Manslaughter charges carry a maximum prison sentence of 20 years, according to Israeli daily Haaretz. Azarya can appeal both the conviction and the sentence to the Israeli Military Appeals Court.
A court reporter for Israel’s The Jerusalem Post said that the judge’s “one-sided” conviction made the decision more vulnerable to appeal, as judges had not expressed any sympathy to the defense’s argument.
According to Haaretz, it is likely the sentence will not come close to the 20-year maximum, based on research showing precedent for Israeli soldiers who have been indicted and tried for manslaughter in a number of cases since 2000, the majority of whom were not convicted and accepted a plea bargain instead.
Israeli President Reuven Rivlin may also face a request to pardon him, according to Haaretz. Israeli Education Minister Naftali Bennett has already stated that Azarya should be granted an immediate pardon, while Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman has also reportedly not ruled out the possibility of a pardon.
A report from Human Rights Watch (HRW) outlined a number of instances when senior Israeli officials have either openly called for the extra-judicial killing of Palestinians or have failed to condemn the calls.
Sari Bashi, the Israel advocacy director at HRW said in the report that “it’s not just about potentially rogue soldiers, but also about senior Israeli officials who publicly tell security forces to unlawfully shoot to kill.”
“In some cases, officials directly responsible for the conduct of law enforcement officers have publicly encouraged them to kill rather than to arrest suspected attackers when feasible,” the report read.
Senior Israeli officials, including Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu and then Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon, initially called for the recognition of the Israeli military’s “rules of engagement” in the wake of al-Sharif’s killing.
However, breaking under pressure of the support for Azarya by the Israeli general public and politicians, Netanyahu later came out in support of the soldier himself and replaced Yaalon with ultra-right Lieberman as defense minister who in 2015 publicly stated his support for killing alleged Palestinian attackers, writing on his Facebook page: “No attacker, male or female, should make it out of any attack alive.”
HRW noted that Israel’s shoot to kill policy has received widespread support among Israeli citizens, citing a 2016 poll by the Israel Democracy Institute which found that 47 percent of Jewish Israelis supported the sentiment that “any Palestinian who carries out a terror attack against Jews should be killed on the spot, even if he has been captured and clearly does not pose a threat.”