By Rami Amichay
TEL AVIV (Reuters) - A young Israeli soldier convicted of killing a Palestinian assailant lying wounded on the ground was sentenced to 18 months imprisonment on Tuesday, far less than prosecutors requested, in one of the most divisive cases in Israel's history.
The decision to court-martial Sergeant Elor Azaria, who shot the Palestinian after he had stabbed another soldier in the occupied West Bank last March, stirred controversy in Israel from the start, with opinion polls showing strong support for the army medic.
A military court last month found Azaria guilty of manslaughter, a crime that carries a top punishment of 20 years in jail.
With the 50th anniversary of Israel's wartime capture of the West Bank approaching, the trial has generated debate about whether the military, long seen as a melting pot for Israelis, was out of touch with a public that has shifted to the right in its attitudes towards the Palestinians.
The prosecution asked that Azaria be sentenced to three to five years behind bars, far below the maximum term, noting that he had shot a Palestinian who only minutes earlier had carried out an attack.
Passing an 18-month sentence that Israeli media commentators described as lenient, the court said that Azaria had not expressed regret for his crime but it noted that his army record had been unblemished up until the shooting and that his arrest had caused his family deep distress.
Palestinians had called for a life term. But there was little sign the sentencing would lead to any significant outbreak of violence by Palestinians. They have long accused Israel of using excessive force against lightly armed assailants and harbored few expectations soldiers would be held accountable.
It was not immediately clear if Azaria's lawyers, who had said after the verdict last month that they intended to appeal his conviction, would still proceed along that path.
Eleven months ago, Azaria, then 19, was serving in the town of Hebron when two Palestinians carried out the stabbing. Hebron has been a longtime flashpoint of violence, and the incident occurred during a wave of Palestinian street attacks on Israelis.
One of the two assailants was shot dead by troops. The other was shot and wounded. Eleven minutes later, as the wounded man, Abd Elfatah Ashareef, 21, lay on the ground incapacitated, Azaria shot him in the head with an assault rifle.
"DESERVES TO DIE"
At the trial, Azaria said he believed the Palestinian, though motionless, still posed a danger because his knife was nearby, and that he might have been carrying explosives. "He deserves to die," Azaria was quoted in the verdict as telling another soldier after pulling the trigger.
At the sentencing, Chief Judge Maya Heller said that Azaria "took upon himself to be both judge and executioner".
Surveys detected significant popular support for Azaria, and Netanyahu took the unusual step of calling the soldier's parents to express his sympathy after he was arrested. In one poll, nearly half of Israeli Jews said any Palestinian who carries out an attack should be killed on the spot.
Rallies for Azaria, some backed by rightist politicians and pop singers, gathered momentum as the trial progressed.
But members of Israel's military establishment argued that the shooting violated rules stating that soldiers can open fire only in life-threatening situations, and the three-judge panel rejected Azaria's argument.
"One cannot use this type of force, even if we're talking about an enemy's life," the court said in its verdict.
Video footage of the shooting, taken by a Palestinian human rights activist, showed the knife was not within Ashareef's reach, and no bomb was found.
The video was distributed to news organizations, ensuring that the incident drew international attention.
(Writing by Jeffrey Heller; Editing by Luke Baker)