IDF Sgt. Elor Azaria. (Miriam Alster/Flash90) (Miriam Alster/Flash90)
IDF Sgt. Elor Azaria

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An IDF soldier who shot a neutralized Palestinian terrorist almost a year ago was found guilty of manslaughter, sparking heated debate in Israel. 70% of Israelis support a pardon for the convicted soldier.

An Israeli military court in Tel Aviv on Wednesday declared IDF Sgt. Elor Azaria guilty of manslaughter.

Last March, Azaria, a combat medic stationed in Hebron at the time, shot a neutralized terrorist in the head as he lay wounded on the ground after committing a stabbing attack against the soldier’s colleagues.

The defense maintained that Azaria felt his life was in danger, saying he thought the terrorist could have been carrying a bomb on his body. The prosecution insisted that Azaria’s action was unlawful and an act of vengeance, noting that the terrorist died of the gunshot rather than of wounds he sustained during the attack.

Case Divides Israelis

The rare case of an active serviceman being charged for murdering a terrorist has polarized Israelis and inflamed public tensions, with some criticizing Azaria’s conduct and large segments of the public rallying behind him.

The military court’s verdict against Azaria could be perceived as a victory for some IDF commanders who are seeking to preserve the IDF’s a  strict code of ethics, but others expressed sympathy for the soldier who they say was faced with an extremely difficult and complex reality.

The shooting occurred at the height of what had become a more than year-long wave of Palestinian violence and highlighted the difficulties facing soldiers operating in densely populated areas amid Palestinian civilians and potential terrorists.

It is rare for a military court to rule against a soldier over lethal action taken in the field, not only in Israel. But for a country that claims to have the “most moral army in the world,” it had no choice but to come down hard on a soldier that the top brass was convinced had strayed, said Amichai Cohen, a senior fellow at the nonpartisan Israeli Democracy Institute think tank.

“If you want the justice system to be taken seriously, you have to punish something like this,” he said.

Azaria is scheduled to be sentenced Jan. 15 and could face up to 20 years in prison, though he is expected to receive a shorter sentence.

Politicians, led by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, have already urged Azaria’s immediate pardoning, saying he was defending the country on the battlefield when the incident occurred.

A poll conducted by the Israel Hayom daily after the conviction shows that the vast majority of the Israeli public – 70 percent – believes Azaria should be pardoned. Only 19 percent opposed such a move, while 11 percent were unsure.

By: United with Israel Staff and AP