Just hours after the Israeli soldier who executed a wounded Palestinian man was found guilty Wednesday of manslaughter, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said he supported pardoning the murderous soldier despite the court’s decision.
"I support a pardon for Elor Azaria," the prime minister said in a short statement. “This is a difficult and painful day for all of us — and first and foremost for Elor and his family, for IDF soldiers, for many soldiers and for the parents of our soldiers, and me among them."
Israeli Sergeant Elor Azaria shot and killed Abdul Fatah Sharif in cold blood in March after the Palestinian carried out a stabbing attack at an Israeli occupation checkpoint in the West Bank town of Hebron.
A video, captured by a Palestinian activist working with the Israeli human rights group B'Tselem, showed Azaria speaking to another soldier before shooting Sharif in the head from a short distance away, about 11 minutes after the Palestinian had been injured by Israeli gunfire.
The decision to court-martial Sergeant Elor Azaria has stirred public controversy in Israel from the start, with several right-wing politicians calling after the verdict on President Reuven Rivlin to pardon the 20-year-old defendant.
Israeli law states that for a pardon to take place the defense minister and chief military prosecutor must submit a request to the president who has the authority to order a pardon.
In a statement released hours after the verdict, Rivlin’s office said requests will only be dealt with after all legal proceedings have ended.
“In light of the foregoing, and in relation to the case of the soldier Elor Azaria, in the event that a pardon should be requested, it will be considered by the president in accordance with standard practices and after recommendations from the relevant authorities,” the statement said.
In the verdict, chief Judge Colonel Maya Heller found that Azaria shot the victim out of revenge after Sharif stabbed and wounded another soldier.
The three-judge military court rejected arguments that the 20-year-old Israeli Defense Forces soldier, who was 19 at the time of the killing, acted in self-defense, unanimously convicting him of manslaughter, a charge that carries a sentence of up to 20 years. The sentence is set to be announced at a later date.
"One cannot use this type of force, even if we're talking about an enemy's life," the court said in its verdict. The documented quoted Azaria telling another soldier, "He deserves to die," referring to Sharif, after fatally shooting him in the head.
According to Al Jazeera's Andrew Simmons, reporting from the court, the 2.5 hour-long reading of the verdict revealed that Azaria's claims about how the incident unfolded repeatedly contradicted themselves.
The conviction comes as a sigh of relief for advocates of Palestinian rights who have repeatedly decried the excessive use of force by Israeli forces. Sharif's family hopes for nothing short of a life sentence for Azaria, while Israel's far right defended the soldier and his crime. An opinion poll in May found that a majority of Israelis thought Azaria should be free and never put on trial.
Israel has been criticized by several human rights bodies and even the United Nations for its systematic extrajudicial killings of alleged attackers, who only had knives for weapons and whose threat could have been neutralized without using deadly force.
Meanwhile, the activist who caught the execution-style killing on video, Imad Abushamsiya, has reportedly received a barrage of harassment since exposing the shooting in March and was even threatened with arrest when he attempted to report months of death threats and other intimidation.
A recent report from the Palestinian Ma'an news agency found that more than 111 Palestinian were killed in 2016, almost all of them at the hands of Israeli forces. According to the report, 34 of the Palestinians killed, or 30.6 percent, were from the Hebron district where Azaria shot Sharif dead in March.
Escalation of the Israel-Palestine conflict since October 2015 has claimed the lives of at least 246 Palestinians and 34 Israelis.