JERUSALEM (JTA) – The conviction of an Israeli soldier on manslaughter charges for shooting and killing a downed Palestinian terrorist divided Israel lawmakers, with some seeking a pardon for the soldier and others urging respect for the rule of law.
Among those calling for a pardon were opposition lawmaker Shelly Yachimovich, who previously served as head of the Labor Party.
The verdict against Sgt. Elor Azaria, 20, was read out Wednesday by a panel of three judges at the Israel Defense Forces headquarters in Tel Aviv.
Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman, in a statement delivered outside the courtroom, called the verdict against Azaria “very difficult.”
“Even those, like myself, who like the verdict less, must accept and respect it,” Liberman said.
Naftali Bennett, who heads the pro-settler Jewish Home party, refuted the verdict.
“Today a soldier who killed a terrorist who deserved to die, who tried to slaughter a soldier, was placed in handcuffs and convicted as a criminal,” Bennett said in a statement posted on Facebook.
Bennett called the criminal proceedings “contaminated from the start,” citing the fact that high-ranking army officials were condemning Azaria within hours of the March 24, 2016 incident in which Azaria, a medic in the elite Kfir Brigade, shot the assailant, Abdel Fattah al-Sharif, in the head as he lay subdued on the ground. Sharif and another attacker had stabbed Israeli soldiers in the West Bank city of Hebron, a flashpoint for Palestinian violence against Jewish Israelis.
Addressing current soldiers, Bennett said: “You are our heroes; the people are behind you. Continue to watch over the citizens of Israel and yourselves” without fear.
Culture and Sports Minister Miri Regev of the Likud party sent an official pardon request to the defense minister, according to reports.
Regev said in a Facebook post that Azaria’s trial “should never have happened.”
“A combat incident in which a terrorist is killed by an Israel Defense Forces soldier shouldn’t get to the criminal level,” she wrote, adding that Azaria should have been disciplined by his commander and not subject to the judgment of politicians and the media even before the military investigation.
Isaac Herzog, head of the opposition Zionist Union coalition, called for the criticism of the judges and the IDF to stop. He called Azaria “the victim of a situation,” and said “it is impossible to ignore the circumstances of the incident, reflecting an impossible situation in a complex setting that IDF soldiers deal with day in and day out.”
Tzipi Livni, who also heads the Zionist Union, said in a statement also posted on Facebook that “brave leadership needs to come out today on the side of the IDF and against the violence in the streets and say that the verdict must be accepted. That is the only way to stop the bleeding and polarization in Israeli society that has been created by the case.”
Yair Lapid, head of the centrist Yesh Atid party, called on Israelis and politicians to “end the violence and stop the irresponsible statements coming from within the political system.”
He added: “The court has made its decision and now we also have a role – to prevent a rift in our society and to ensure no harm comes to the people’s army.”
Arab-Israeli lawmakers said the verdict was not enough.
“Dozens of other soldiers and commanders who have senselessly killed Palestinians should also have been convicted,” said Arab Joint List lawmaker Ahmed Tibi.
The head of the Arab Joint List, Ayman Odeh, used the conviction as an opportunity to criticize Israel’s military rule over much of the West Bank.
“While it is clear that a soldier is responsible for his own actions, those really responsible are the governments of Israel, which for 50 years now have chosen to turn young men and women into soldiers whose job it is to maintain military rule over a civilian population devoid of rights,” Odeh said.
The father of the dead terrorist told reporters that he felt “good” about the verdict, which he called “fair.” Other family members were quoted as saying that they would take Azaria to the International Criminal Court for prosecution.
Azaria family spokesman Sharon Gal told reporters that the verdict made it seem “like the court was detached from the fact that this was the area of an attack. I felt that the court picked up the knife from the ground and stabbed all of the soldiers in the back with it.”
The shooting was captured on video, and Azaria was arrested the same day and indicted nearly a month later. Autopsy reports showed that the shots by Azaria killed Sharif.
Azaria will be sentenced at a later date.