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Sentencing of Israeli soldier divides country

Josef Federman
Associated Press

Jerusalem — An Israeli soldier was sentenced Tuesday to 18 months in prison for killing a badly wounded Palestinian assailant as he lay on the ground, in a landmark decision that deepened fissures in Israeli society and drew Palestinian criticism for being too lenient.

Leading nationalist Israeli politicians called any jail time unfair and urged an immediate pardon, while Palestinians dismissed Israel’s justice system as a “joke.”

The sentencing of Sgt. Elor Azaria culminated a nearly yearlong saga that has bitterly divided the country. While Israel’s top generals pushed for the prosecution of a soldier they say violated the military’s code of ethics, large segments of the public, including politicians on Israel’s nationalist right, sided with Azaria. Even Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu gave only lukewarm support to his military.

Although the sentence was lighter than expected, those divisions showed no signs of easing following Tuesday’s sentencing at a Tel Aviv military court. Dozens of people demonstrated outside in support of Azaria and hard-line politicians called for his release.

“Even if he erred, Elor should not sit in prison. We will all pay the price,” said Education Minister Naftali Bennett, leader of the nationalist Jewish Home Party.

Azaria, an army medic, was recorded on a cellphone video last March as he fatally shot a badly wounded Palestinian who had stabbed a soldier in the West Bank city of Hebron. The Palestinian, Abdel Fattah al-Sharif, was lying on the ground unarmed when Azaria shot him in the head.

Azaria was convicted of manslaughter last month in a rare case of a military court ruling against a combat soldier for lethal action taken in the field.

The verdict marked a victory for commanders who said Azaria had violated army procedures.

But the soldier enjoyed wide public support. In Israel, military service is compulsory for most Jewish men, and soldiers enjoy widespread sympathy.

A Channel 2 TV poll taken after the conviction found that 67 percent of respondents supported clemency. The poll questioned 666 people and had a margin of error of 4.4 percentage points.

Asa Kasher, a philosopher who wrote the Israeli army’s code of ethics, said the case has unleashed dangerous trends in the country.

“One shot by one soldier took on the shape of a war between right and left,” he told Channel 2.

He said “extremists” initially took up Azaria’s cause, and hard-line politicians followed suit. Politicians’ support for the soldier fueled the resignation last year of then-Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon, a former military chief of staff.