An Israeli soldier was convicted of manslaughter on Wednesday in the deadly shooting of an incapacitated Palestinian attacker, capping a nine-month saga that has deeply divided the country.
The verdict, which marks an extremely rare instance of an Israeli military court siding against a soldier over lethal action taken in the field, threatened to deepen the rift. Military commanders have condemned the soldier's conduct, while much of the public, along with leading members of the nationalist ruling coalition, have rallied behind him.
Sgt. Elor Azaria, an army medic, was caught on a cellphone video fatally shooting a wounded Palestinian attacker who had stabbed a soldier in the West Bank city of Hebron in March. The Palestinian was lying motionless on the ground when Azaria shot him in the head.
In a verdict that stretched nearly three hours, Col. Maya Heller, head of the three-judge panel, painstakingly rejected all of Azaria's defense arguments. She said there was no evidence to support his claim that the attacker was already dead or that the man posed any threat at the time.
She said that Azaria was an "unreliable" witness and had "needlessly" shot the assailant. She also said his defense witnesses were problematic.
"We found there was no room to accept his arguments," she said. "His motive for shooting was that he felt the terrorist deserved to die."
The defense team said it would appeal the verdict. The sentencing is expected in the coming weeks.
The 20-year-old Azaria entered the court smiling and appearing confident, joined by a contingent of relatives. A young man wore a T-shirt that said "the nation is with you." But as the verdict was delivered, Azaria stared gloomily ahead, and tensions quickly boiled over in the cramped, crowded courtroom.
Members of Azaria's family clapped as the decision was delivered, screaming "Our hero!" A female relative was kicked out of the courtroom for screaming at the judges and calling the decision a disgrace. A second woman stormed out, shouting, "Disgusting leftists."
After the judges walked out, Azaria's mother, Oshra, screamed, "You should be ashamed of yourselves." Azaria tried to comfort her and calm her down as she wailed. Another family member turned toward the media and whipped his jacket at a female reporter. He missed the reporter and instead hit another relative.
Israeli lawmaker Oren Hazan approached Azaria and gave him a hug before police ordered him to stop.
Hundreds of the soldier's supporters, many of them young religious men wearing skullcaps, gathered outside the military court in Tel Aviv ahead of the verdict. The crowd, holding large Israeli flags and banners that said "the nation neglected a soldier on the battlefield" periodically scuffled with police. After the verdict, however, there were no further clashes.
The shooting occurred at the height of what has become more than a yearlong wave of violence between Israelis and Palestinians.
Azaria's defenders said he shot the assailant in an act of self-defense, and hard-line politicians have said he should be either cleared or released with a light penalty. But his detractors, including senior military commanders, have said his actions violated the army's code of ethics and procedures.
The uproar has put the army in a delicate position. Military service is compulsory for Israel's Jewish majority, and there is widespread sympathy for soldiers, since virtually every family has a member who is serving or has served in the past.
The dispute helped fuel the resignation of Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon, who sided with the military, earlier this year. His successor, Avigdor Lieberman, visited Azaria in court. Education Minister Naftali Bennett, leader of the pro-settler Jewish Home Party, has also sided with Azaria.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who initially defended the military, later softened his position and called Azaria's parents to console them.
After the verdict, Lieberman, who heads a hard-line nationalist party, said he disagreed with the "difficult" verdict, but he urged the public to respect the court's decision. He said the defense establishment would do "everything it can" to help Azaria and his family.
"We must keep the army outside every political argument...and keep it in the widest consensus in Israeli society," he said.
Israeli human rights groups have accused the army of failing to prosecute soldiers who commit unnecessary violence against Palestinians, and trying a soldier for a crime as serious as manslaughter is virtually unheard of.
The rights group Yesh Din said it was just the second manslaughter case of a soldier since the second Palestinian uprising erupted in 2000. The first case involved the death of a British activist.
Sharon Gal, a spokesman for the Azaria family, accused the court of siding with human rights groups over a soldier on a battlefield.
"It was like the court was detached from the fact that this was the area of an attack. I felt that the court picked up the knife from the ground and stabbed it in the back of all the soldiers," he said.
Lt. Col. Nadav Weissman, a military prosecutor, said this was "not a happy day."
"We would have preferred that this didn't happen. But the deed was done, and the offense was severe," he said.