JERUSALEM (AP) — An Israeli military court on Sunday upheld the 18-month sentence of a soldier convicted of fatally shooting a Palestinian attacker who lay on the ground wounded after stabbing and wounding another soldier, in a case that divided the country where military service is mandatory.
Sgt. Elor Azaria, an army combat medic, was recorded on a cellphone video as he fatally shot a badly wounded Palestinian who had previously attacked a soldier with a knife, wounding him. The Palestinian, Abdel Fattah al-Sharif, was lying on the ground unarmed when Azaria shot him in the head.
The 2016 incident occurred in the volatile West Bank city of Hebron at a time of frequent Palestinian attacks.
Israel's top generals pushed for the prosecution of the soldier they say violated the military's code of ethics they hold dear.
Large segments of the public, including politicians on Israel's nationalist right, sided with Azaria. Some called him a hero who was being wrongly persecuted.
In Israel, military service is compulsory for most Jewish men, and soldiers enjoy widespread sympathy and support as they operate in complex scenarios.
The verdict said "unnecessary taking human life, even if it is of a terrorist, is morally forbidden and contradicts the ethics of the Israeli army."
It called the soldier's actions "grave, forbidden and immoral" and in sharp contrast to the military's strict "purity of arms" code of conduct.
The soldier will enter prison on August 9th, unless there is another appeal.
"All the terrorists are laughing at us," the soldier's mother, Oshra, cried after the verdict.
Israel's Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman issued a statement urging the soldier's family not to continue appealing. "It's a difficult day," he said adding the ruling must be respected. He said the military's Chief of Staff should be asked to pardon him. "I have no doubt he will take into consideration the difficult circumstances," he said.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu tweeted that he will recommend a pardon.
Israel's military Chief of Staff later said if a request for pardon is submitted he would "seriously consider" it.
Fathi al-Sharif, an uncle of the Palestinian killed, said "if the killer was Palestinian and the victim was Israeli, the sentence would have been life term in jail."
"We are against any violence from any side," he said, "the only way out of this violence is peace."
Human Rights Watch welcomed the court decision. "Upholding the conviction of a soldier convicted of fatally shooting a man who posed no threat sends an important message about restrictions on lethal use of force," said Sari Bashi, the Israel and Palestine advocacy director at Human Rights Watch.
Israel has been coping with a wave of Palestinian violence that erupted in 2015. Attacks at times were a daily occurrence.
Since then, Palestinians have killed 48 Israelis, two visiting Americans and a British tourist in stabbings, shootings and car-ramming attacks targeting civilians and soldiers.
During that same period, Israeli forces have killed more than 256 Palestinians; Israel has said that most of them were attackers, others died in clashes.
Rights groups have accused Israel of using excessive force in some of the confrontations.
Israel blames the violence on incitement by Palestinian religious and political leaders compounded on social media sites that glorify violence and encourage attacks. Palestinians say the attacks stem from anger and frustration at decades of Israeli rule in territories they claim for a state.
The Azaria case bore a resemblance to the murder conviction in Britain of Alexander Blackman, a Royal Marine who was sentenced to a minimum 10 years by a military court for killing a wounded Taliban fighter in Afghanistan in 2011. Such a conviction for a serving soldier is extremely rare in Britain, and supporters said Blackman was under extreme stress after heavy fighting and losing close comrades.
He was released from prison in England earlier this year.