ONE of the most contentious cases in Israel’s military history reached its verdict on January 4th when three military judges found a serving soldier, Sergeant Elor Azaria, guilty of manslaughter for killing a Palestinian.
The public controversy was not over the facts. Both the prosecution and defence agreed that on March 24th 2016, in the West Bank city of Hebron, Mr Azaria had fired point-blank at Abdel-Fattah al-Sharif, a Palestinian man lying grievously wounded after he had been shot while stabbing an Israeli soldier.
Nor was it over the court’s dismissal of Mr Azaria’s claim to have been acting in self-defence; the judges reached a unanimous decision that he had acted “calmly, without urgency and in a calculated manner” and that, as he said on the scene to a comrade, he thought Mr al-Sharif “deserve[d] to die”.
Instead the controversy relates to the fact that a large section of the Israeli public seems to believe that Mr Azaria was right to have shot a wounded prisoner who no longer posed a danger. A poll last August by the Israeli Democracy Institute and Tel Aviv University indicated that 65% of Israel’s Jewish majority supported his actions. A seemingly contradictory finding in the same poll put public support of the Israel Defence Forces (IDF), the same organisation that put Sergeant Azaria on trial, at 87%.
One explanation for this discrepancy is that anger is high over the sporadic campaign of stabbings by Palestinians since 2015. Another is that admiration for the army does not necessarily extend to the generals, who rushed to condemn him when video of the shooting emerged. This mixed message is coming from the politicians, too. The prime minister, Binyamin Netanyahu, called Mr Azaria’s parents to express solidarity shortly after his arrest. Since the conviction he joined several ministers in calling for Mr Azaria to be pardoned by the president, Reuven Rivlin. The only senior member of the ruling Likud party to condemn the shooting unequivocally was Moshe Yaalon, then the defence minister. Shortly afterwards he was pushed out of office and replaced by Avigdor Lieberman, a hardliner.
Manslaughter convictions of IDF soldiers on duty are very rare. The last was 11 years ago when one was found guilty of killing Tom Hurndall, a British pro-Palestinian activist. Human-rights organisations say other similar shootings have gone unpunished.
Still, the generals can take comfort from the judges’ firm line: the IDF’s claim to be a highly moral army requires it to act against cases of blatant indiscipline. And Mr Netanyahu, though bending to populist sentiment at home, will doubtless hold out the verdict as proof to the world that his country is a democracy where the rule of law prevails, in a region where such virtues are rare.