TEL AVIV, Israel (AP) — An Israeli soldier went on trial for manslaughter before a military court on Monday after he was caught on video fatally shooting a wounded Palestinian attacker in the West Bank two months ago.
The rare case of an active serviceman being charged has polarized Israel, with defense officials criticizing the soldier's conduct and large segments of the Israeli public rallying behind him.
The hearings opened Monday before the military court in Tel Aviv, where Sgt. Elor Azaria sat in the defendant's bench as his mother wrapped her arms around him to comfort him.
In its indictment, read aloud in the courtroom, the military prosecution said Azaria "acted in contrast to the rules of opening fire and without any operational justification." It said the Palestinian, Abdel-Fattah al-Sharif, "did not present a clear and present threat" and that "the defendant caused the death of the terrorist al-Sharif illegally."
Azaria was also charged with inappropriate military conduct.
Israeli media said the court urged the sides to seek a plea bargain over the next week. It was unclear whether they would reach a settlement, or how long the trial will last.
At the time of the March incident, the military said two Palestinians had been shot and killed while carrying out a stabbing attack that wounded an Israeli soldier.
But a video released later by the Israeli human rights group B'Tselem showed one of the attackers still alive after the initial shooting and Azaria firing at his head. The military said the man had been lying on the ground nearly motionless for six minutes before Azaria arrived. An autopsy determined the shot to the head was the cause of death.
The incident took place amid months of Palestinian attacks that have killed and wounded scores of Israeli security forces and civilians.
"The truth will come out. The path will be long. We will endure," said defense lawyer Binyamin Malka. The soldier's defense team has said he acted appropriately and that it is seeking full acquittal.
Palestinians have accused Israel of using excessive force against attackers who have already been halted or wounded, and in some cases, of killing innocent civilians. Activists have released a handful of amateur videos supporting the Palestinian claims, but the Hebron shooting is perhaps the strongest evidence of Israeli wrongdoing so far.
The case has divided Israel. Thousands of Israelis rallied last month in support of the soldier, accusing the government of abandoning him at a time of heightened conflict with the Palestinians. A March poll by Channel 2 TV found that 57 percent of the Israeli public opposed prosecuting the soldier, while 68 percent said that criticism of the soldier by the military chief and defense minister was not justified. Just 21 percent said their criticism was justified. The poll gave no margin of error. On Monday, however, only a few supporters gathered outside the court to support him.
Also on Monday, a Jewish settler group said it took over a multistory building in the Muslim Quarter of Jerusalem's Old City.
It was the latest move by nationalist Jews to acquire properties in order to ensure Arab areas of Jerusalem remain in Israeli hands under any future peace deal with the Palestinians. Some 1,000 Jews have moved into Arab areas of the Old City since the 1980s.
About four Palestinian families previously lived in the building that was taken over Monday, said Daniel Luria of the Ateret Cohanim settler group. He said three or four Jewish families, along with religious studies students, will move into the building after renovations.
Luria said the property was purchased legally by an investor, whom he would not identify.
Israel captured the Old City along with east Jerusalem in the 1967 war and later annexed the territory, but Palestinians claim east Jerusalem for the capital of their hoped-for state.
Estrin reported from Jerusalem.