An Israeli military court charged a soldier with manslaughter Monday after he was caught on video fatally shooting a wounded Palestinian attacker, a decision that set the stage for a rare criminal trial against an active serviceman in a case that has bitterly divided the nation.
While Israeli defense officials have criticized the soldier’s conduct, large segments of the public have rallied behind him and accused the government of abandoning him at a time of heightened conflict with the Palestinians.
The soldier, identified Monday as a medic named Sgt. Elor Azaria, was charged in a shooting last month in Hebron, a West Bank city that has been a focal point of a seven-month wave of Israeli-Palestinian fighting.
At the time of the 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 by the Israeli human rights group B’Tselem showed one of the attackers still alive after the initial shooting.
The video, taken by a B’Tselem volunteer, shows Azaria calmly raising his rifle, cocking the weapon and firing at the assailant’s head. An autopsy determined the shot to the head was the cause of death.
In its indictment, 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.” He was also charged with inappropriate military conduct.
His attorney, Ilan Katz, said Azaria acted as expected from a combat soldier and would seek a full acquittal.
Since September, Palestinian attackers have killed 28 Israelis and two Americans in stabbings, car rammings and shootings. At least 189 Palestinians have been killed, most of them said by Israel to be attackers, with the rest killed in clashes with Israeli security forces.
The Palestinians have repeatedly accused Israel of using excessive force against attackers who have already been halted or injured, or 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.
Palestinians and human rights groups have repeatedly accused Israel’s military justice system of doing a poor job of prosecuting wayward soldiers.
Citing official army figures, the Israeli rights group Yesh Din says that of the more than 2,600 investigations opened by the military into alleged crimes committed by soldiers against Palestinians between 2000 and 2014, only 136, or 5 percent, resulted in indictments, leading to 193 convictions. More than one soldier can be listed in a single indictment.
Of about 262 investigations into Palestinian fatalities since 2000, only 16 have yielded indictments. Only one, involving the 2004 death of a British pro-Palestinian activist killed by army fire in the Gaza Strip, resulted in a manslaughter conviction, with the other cases either dismissed or ending in convictions on lesser charges.
Gilad Grossman, spokesman for Yesh Din, said Monday’s indictment was “the first case since 2000 where the dead person is a Palestinian.”
“We believe that for Palestinians to really receive justice in a military judicial system is very difficult,” he added.
Military officials say the justice system adheres to high standards, and that each case must be reviewed on its own.
It was not immediately clear what sentence the soldier could face if convicted. The soldier convicted in the 2004 case was sentenced to eight years in prison, though he was freed after five.
The shooting has polarized Israel. The country’s defense minister, its military chief and other top officials called it contrary to the army’s values. That outcry in turn kicked up a torrent of support for the soldier, who claims he feared the attacker was carrying an explosive belt.
Right-wing politicians have rushed to the soldier’s defense, with many Israelis calling his actions appropriate for a country reeling from months of Palestinian attacks. Military service is mandatory for most Israeli Jews, and young soldiers are often seen with great sympathy.
A rally supporting the soldier is scheduled for Tuesday night in Tel Aviv, with top Israeli musicians due to perform. One of those musicians, Eyal Golan, dropped out of the event Monday because he did not want to appear to be coming out against the military chief. The army is the country’s most respected institution among Israeli Jews.
Yohanan Plesner, head of the Israel Democracy Institute, said such a rally was an affront to the military. He said most soldiers act with “proper ethical norms.” He said the demonstration “erodes the very values on which the army stands.”
The indictment came hours after the Israeli military said it had discovered and destroyed a tunnel from Gaza into Israel, the first one to be discovered since Israel’s 2014 war with Gaza’s ruling Islamic militant Hamas movement.
Israeli troops detected the tunnel’s exit several days ago, according to military spokesman Lt. Col. Peter Lerner, who said the tunnel is believed to have been built after the war. It stretched several hundred meters (yards), was lined with cement and outfitted with electricity, ventilation and rail tracks to cart away dirt from digging, he said.
In the 2014 war, Israel destroyed more than 30 Hamas tunnels under the border.
Hamas has vowed to rebuild the tunnel network. This year, 14 people died in Gaza while digging tunnels aimed at attacking Israelis or hiding weapons and rocket launch sites, and Israeli officials estimate there are 800 Gazans working as diggers.
Israelis living near the Gaza Strip have reported hearing digging sounds under their homes in recent months.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Israel has achieved a “global breakthrough in the ability to locate tunnels,” and the government was investing considerable capital in countering the threat.
“This is an ongoing effort that will not end overnight,” he said.
The Qassam Brigades, the armed wing of Hamas, said the newly discovered and destroyed tunnel was “just a drop in the ocean of what the resistance has prepared to defend its people, free its sanctuaries and prisoners.”