As an Israeli military judge sentenced a 21-year-old soldier on Tuesday to 18 months in prison for killing a wounded Palestinian assailant in the West Bank last year, a small but noisy crowd of protesters gathered outside the court in Tel Aviv.
The right-wing protesters, demanding Elor Azaria be immediately released and pardoned, carried banners that read "The people of Israel support and salute the hero soldier” and “Death to Terrorists.”
While the demonstration was smaller than during past court proceedings, the protesters represent a significant portion of the Israeli public that supports the actions of Mr. Azaria, insisting he is a national hero, not a murderer.
The incident, in which Azaria shot the apparently incapacitated attacker, 21-year-old Abdul Fatah al-Sharif in Hebron, came amid a wave of attacks by Palestinians that had killed 29 Israelis over the preceding five months. While the military court ruled the shooting violated the Israel Defense Force’s rules of engagement, in a country where military service is mandatory many disagreed.
"There's a public reverence for Israeli soldiers that makes them more sacred than civilians; they're viewed as the sons of all of us," Ronen Bergman, senior correspondent for military and intelligence affairs at the Yediot Ahronot newspaper and author of a forthcoming book on the Mossad intelligence agency, told Joel Greenberg for The Christian Science Monitor this month.
"The mainstream view is that there simply cannot be a situation in which a Jewish soldier murders an Arab," said Mr. Bergman. "Fundamentally, this is racism of the worst kind, a preference for the law of the street over the law of the army and the country. The army command finds its authority challenged on Facebook and Twitter, and by a mob ready to turn on the most sacred institution, the military."
"Usually it's the army that wants to press ahead and initiate wars, and the politicians rein it in," Bergman added. "But now it's the opposite: The army is upholding democratic norms. A country where the military is the last guardian of democracy is in a sorry state."
After being convicted of manslaughter by a three-judge military panel over a month ago, Azaria was sentenced to 18 months in prison by IDF Col. Maya Heller in the court in the Ministry of Defense on Tuesday. Ms. Heller stated Azaria expressed no remorse, but that the court took mitigating circumstances into account, according to BBC. She noted the incident took place “in hostile territory,” acknowledged there were not clear orders as to how Azaria was supposed to act there, took note of the harm suffered by his family, and said it was his first conviction.
The March killing was captured on a phone video by B’Tselem, an Israeli human rights group. The video shows Azaria cocking his rifle and shooting an apparently incapacitated Mr. Sharif in the head, killing him. Sharif was one of two knife attackers who wounded another Israeli soldier. The other attacker was shot and killed, while Sharif was laying motionless on the ground when Azaria, an army medic, arrived. According to the IDF, Azaria arrived at the scene approximately 11 minutes after the attack.
For a manslaughter conviction, Azaria could have served a 20-year sentence. The defense argued Azaria thought Sharif posed a threat to his life because he thought he was wearing an explosive vest. Prosecutors, who argued Azaria was motivated by vengeance, sought a 3-5-year prison time. But the father of Sharif had called for a life sentence.
The father, Yusri al-Sharif, told BBC the sentence was a “joke” and the Israeli authorities were “laughing in our face.”
After the widely circulated video surfaced, army leadership condemned Azaria’s actions. But Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu walked back similar comments after a wave of public opinion came out in support of Azaria. Mr. Netanyahu took the unusual step of calling Azaria’s father to assure him his son would be treated fairly, and has said he supports public calls to pardon Azaria, something only Israel’s president, Reuven Rivlin, can do.
The support for Azaria comes as Israelis are hardening their attitudes about the conflict with the Palestinians.
"The diminishing tolerance of Israeli society for terrorist attacks has produced the doctrine, promoted by some political leaders, that anyone who attacks Jews should die, even when the attacker is neutralized and no longer poses a threat," Mordechai Kremnitzer, a law professor and vice president of the Israel Democracy Institute, an independent think tank, told Mr. Greenberg for the Monitor. "That does not bode well for Israeli society's commitment to the value of human life."
"While in the past the Israeli public believed we were in a difficult but temporary situation and would soon reach an agreement that would bring quiet, the dominant narrative now is that this is an endless conflict with a foe that opposes our very existence," Professor Kremnitzer added. "The loss of hope for change has eroded sensitivity."
"There's a struggle going on between those who believe that despite the terrorism we have to maintain our humanity and basic values, and others who think those values are a luxury for a society in constant conflict with no end in sight," he said.