During the trial, Azarya’s lawyers argued that the soldier had fired at Abd al-Fattah Yusri al-Sharif in the occupied West Bank city of Hebron because he felt he was in danger.
But in their ruling on Wednesday, the judges found “beyond all reasonable doubt” that Azarya had acted in revenge.
Within hours, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called for Azarya, who is seen as a national hero by many in Israel, to be pardoned.
Al-Sharif was shot dead along with Ramzi Aziz al-Qasrawi, both 21 years old, on 24 March last year. Israel alleges that they stabbed a soldier near the Tel Rumeida settlement in Hebron.
The killing of al-Qasrawi was not caught on video.
The verdict came shortly after Human Rights Watch said that senior Israeli officials have been “encouraging Israeli soldiers and police to kill Palestinians they suspect of attacking Israelis even when they are no longer a threat.”
“Perversion of justice”
Some of the protesters carried banners in support of US President-elect Donald Trump:
Lawmakers from Israel’s far-right and centrist political parties are calling for Azarya to be pardoned, a power that lies with Israeli President Reuven Rivlin.
Backing the calls, Netanyahu said, “This is a difficult and painful day for all of us – and first and foremost for Elor and his family, for [Israeli army] soldiers, for many soldiers and for the parents of our soldiers, and me among them.”
In Hebron, the family of al-Sharif expressed dissatisfaction that Azarya was only charged with manslaughter.
Relatives told Palestinians gathered at a vigil in Hebron on Wednesday that they would bring Israel to the International Criminal Court for what they see as cold-blooded murder.
“The fact that the soldier is convicted of manslaughter isn’t such an important development from our standpoint,” Fathi al-Sharif, an uncle of the slain man, told the Tel Aviv newspaper Haaretz. “From the beginning, we stated that he had committed murder and needed to be convicted of murder. The fact that they changed the count of the indictment to manslaughter from our standpoint is a perversion of justice.”
Emad Abu Shamsiyya, the Palestinian field researcher with the Israeli human rights group B’Tselem who filmed the killing, has received hundreds of death threats.
He said members of Azarya’s family broke into his home and asked him to change his testimony to the court.
On the day of the shooting, Azarya was called onto the scene after al-Sharif and al-Qasrawi were shot and incapacitated, to give the moderately injured soldier medical assistance.
Video footage released by B’Tselem shows al-Sharif lying on the ground, slightly moving his head, while Israeli soldiers and medics work around him and load the injured soldier onto an ambulance.
The video shows no attempt to provide medical treatment to al-Sharif.
Settlers on the scene are heard shouting, “the terrorist is still alive,” and the “the dog is still alive.”
Azarya then aims his weapon, takes a few steps towards al-Sharif, and shoots him in the head. A stream of blood pours from the man’s head.
After the video was released, some Israeli politicians and military leaders condemned the shooting and the military announced it would charge the shooter with murder. But almost immediately Israeli leaders began to backtrack as they saw the swelling of popular support for Azarya.
Azarya was eventually indicted on the lesser manslaughter charge.
At the trial, Azarya claimed he had shot the incapacitated al-Sharif out of fear for his safety.
But Azarya’s company commander testified that al-Sharif posed no danger.
The judges’ verdict states that the reason Azarya shot al-Sharif “was not rooted in a sense of danger, but rather in the explanation he provided immediately upon completion of the shooting to the effect that ‘the terrorist deserved to die’ because he had stabbed a friend of his prior to that.”
Two months after the shooting, more video emerged suggesting the army tampered with evidence. The footage shows a person kicking a knife closer to the body of the slain man.
Shoot to kill policy
Azarya’s indictment is exceptional: scores of Palestinians have been killed by Israeli forces over the last year, many in apparent extrajudicial executions, with impunity for their killers.
Last September, Amnesty International detailed 20 cases of killings of Palestinians by Israeli forces. In 15 of those cases, Amnesty said, “Palestinians were deliberately shot dead, despite posing no imminent threat to life, in what appear to be extrajudicial executions.”
Also in September, Palestinian human rights group Al-Haq found that “Since 1987, no Israeli soldier or commander has been convicted of willfully causing the death of a Palestinian in the [occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip].”
According to Haaretz, since 2000, in only a handful of cases were soldiers prosecuted for manslaughter. Of those, only one soldier was convicted. He received an eight-year sentence, though this was later reduced. The case related to the killing of Tom Hurndall, a British Palestine solidarity activist.
Human rights defenders are stressing that the killing of al-Sharif highlights a much broader problem.
“It’s not just about potentially rogue soldiers, but also about senior Israeli officials who publicly tell security forces to unlawfully shoot to kill,” Sari Bashi, Israel advocacy director at Human Rights Watch, said.
Human Rights Watch says that since October 2015, when an escalation in confrontations between Palestinians and Israeli occupation forces began, it has documented numerous statements “by senior Israeli politicians, including the police minister and defense minister, calling on police and soldiers to shoot to kill suspected attackers, irrespective of whether lethal force is actually strictly necessary to protect life.”
Indeed, one witness called by Azarya’s defense, a settler security chief, told the court that shooting at the heads of incapacitated alleged Palestinian attackers is a common practice by Israeli occupation forces.
In October, Azarya was named man of the year by Israel’s Channel 10 and by Makor Rishon, a publication owned by US billionaire Sheldon Adelson.
He is expected to be sentenced in coming weeks.
Editor’s note: A correction has been made to this article since publication. Apart from Elor Azarya, the only Israeli soldier convicted of manslaughter since 2000 had been tried in relation to the killing of Tom Hurndall, a Palestine solidarity activist. The original version of this article indicated that the soldier had been convicted for killing a Palestinian.