JAFFA, Israel (Reuters) - An Israeli soldier who shot and killed a wounded Palestinian assailant went on trial on manslaughter charges on Monday in a rare case that focuses on allegations of excessive use of force in confronting Palestinian attacks.
A majority of Israelis do not want a court-martial to take place, according to an opinion poll taken shortly after Sergeant Elor Azaria was arrested in March. Palestinian officials have called the soldier’s action cold-blooded murder.
The incident, in the city of Hebron in the occupied West Bank, came to light after a video shot by a Palestinian witness showed Azaria firing once into the head of the assailant, who lay wounded on the ground after he had stabbed and wounded another soldier.
An autopsy, attended by both an Israeli and a Palestinian pathologist, showed it was Azaria’s bullet that killed him.
Palestinian leaders have accused Israel of routine extra-judicial killings - a charge it denies - as it tries to quell months of stabbings, shootings and car rammings.
Azaria, a conscript medic, is the first active duty Israeli soldier to face criminal proceedings over the alleged illegal use of lethal force since the violence erupted in October.
But with Israel’s military chief urging soldiers to use only “measured and considered force” in dealing with attackers, an opinion poll found that 57 percent of Israelis believe Azaria should never have been arrested.
Two months ago, after far-right ministers in his governing coalition cautioned against what they dismissed as a show trial, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu took the unusual step of telephoning the conscript’s father to say “I understand your distress” and promising his son would be treated fairly.
Military prosecutors said that with no proof of premeditation, they had opted to indict Azaria for manslaughter instead of murder. If convicted, he could face up to 20 years in prison.
“Justice will come to light,” Binyamin Malka, one of Azaria’s attorneys, told reporters in the military courtroom in Jaffa, near Tel Aviv, where the soldier was hugged by his mother before the three-judge panel convened.
According to the military, Azaria told investigators he believed the Palestinian, though subdued, may have had a suicide explosive belt and that he still posed a danger.
Since October, Palestinian attacks have killed 28 Israelis and two visiting U.S. citizens. Israeli forces have killed at least 194 Palestinians, 133 of whom Israel has said were assailants. Many others were shot dead in clashes and protests.
Factors behind the violence include Palestinian bitterness over stalled peace talks and the growth of Israeli settlements, increased Jewish access to a contested Jerusalem shrine and Islamist-led calls for Israel’s destruction.
But the pace of the attacks has slowed, and Israel has attributed this partly to closer cooperation with Palestinian security forces.
Writing by Jeffrey Heller in Jerusalem; editing by Peter Graff