JAFFA, Israel (Reuters) - Israel’s military filed manslaughter charges on Monday against a soldier who shot a Palestinian assailant in the head as he lay wounded on the ground in a killing that a poll said many Israelis felt was justified.
Sergeant Elor Azaria, a conscript infantry medic, was captured on video firing once into the head of the Palestinian after the man had been shot by other soldiers while taking part in a stabbing attack on March 24.
The incident in Hebron, a city in the occupied West Bank that has been a focus of a six-month-old wave of Palestinian street violence, tapped into international controversy over whether Israeli security forces’ response has been heavy-handed.
Defence lawyers say Azaria took action because he feared the Palestinian had a hidden bomb. Prosecutors, citing the testimony from the soldier’s comrades and his apparently calm disposition, see it as an illegal shooting motivated by revenge.
Azaria was initially held on a murder warrant. The lighter manslaughter charge, reflecting a view that the killing was not premeditated, could spell a jail term of up to 20 years.
“The terrorist ... was left lying on the ground, still alive, and did not present any immediate and tangible danger to the civilians and soldiers around him,” the indictment said.
It said Azaria handed his helmet to a comrade, cocked his rifle, walked a few steps towards the Palestinian and “fired one bullet at the terrorist’s head”, killing him.
Such action, the charge sheet said, violated rules of engagement and had no “operational justification”.
An opinion poll last month found 57 percent of Israelis think Azaria should never been arrested. His supporters, including some rightist politicians, have demonstrated for his release. Almost 60,000 people have signed an online petition demanding that he be decorated for heroism.
Azaria’s family, who according to a person familiar with the case hold dual French citizenship, and supporters planned to hold a rally of support in a main square in Tel Aviv on Tuesday.
Two popular Israeli singers initially said they would perform at the gathering but later withdrew, saying they feared the event would have political overtones and be seen as a protest against military authorities.
The outcry over the Hebron incident has flagged up rare rifts over the role and ethics of Israel’s conscript armed forces, long the symbol of unity among the majority Jews where deep concern about security is largely shared across the social and political spectrum.
Writing by Dan Williams; Editing by Jeffrey Heller and Richard Balmforth