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Israeli police arrest pro-Azarya protesters in wake of conviction

Jan. 8, 2017 4:19 P.M. (Updated: Jan. 8, 2017 9:56 P.M.)
BETHLEHEM (Ma’an) -- Israeli police arrested seven protesters on Saturday night who were demonstrating in support of Israeli soldier Elor Azarya, who was convicted of manslaughter last week for the execution-style shooting of a wounded Palestinian -- a case that has sparked outrage among an increasingly right-wing Israeli public which has labeled Azarya a national hero.

Israeli police spokesperson Luba al-Samri said in a statement that several dozen protesters gathered around the Jerusalem residence of Israeli President Reuven Rivlin on Saturday night. Demands for a presidential pardon of the 20-year-old soldier have been mounting among Israeli citizens and leaders -- including Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Some 67 percent of Israelis reportedly support the pardon.

Al-Samri said that some demonstrators blocked off streets during the “illegal” protest, with unruly protesters ignoring police officers who repeatedly asked them to return to the sidewalk.

Officers then dispersed the demonstrators and arrested seven of them “for breach of public order."

An eighth pro-Azarya protester was reportedly arrested on charges of seeking to disrupt a rally in Tel Aviv earlier in the night. The rally had been held to promote national unity among an Israeli public that has been deeply divided over the conviction.

Since last Thursday, multiple arrests have been reported throughout various protests and clashes reacting to the verdict, which followed one of the highest profile military trials in Israel in recent memory.

Azarya faces up to 20 years in prison, and will be sentenced at a later date.

His defense team reportedly plans to appeal against the verdict, which marks the first time in 12 years that an Israeli soldier has been convicted for his actions while in uniform.

The rare conviction was made in large part due to damning footage of the shooting, which the Israeli prosecution said clearly showed an unjustified revenge killing of a Palestinian, who had already been shot and severely wounded after allegedly attempting to stab Azarya’s fellow soldier.

The video was also supported by testimonies from experts and Azarya’s commanders saying that the killing was unjustified, and the three-judge panel ultimately gave a wholesale endorsement to the prosecution’s argument when they reached the verdict.

Two Israelis have been arrested for calling for attacks on the three judges, while another has been detained on suspicion of taking part in a “hate campaign” against Israeli armed forces chief of staff Lieutenant General Gadi Eisenkot, who ordered the prosecution of Elor Azaria, according to Israeli media reports.

The Israeli army has reportedly since assigned a security detail to protect the three judges -- Maya Heller, Carmel Wahabi, and Yaron Sitbon -- as well as to the military prosecutor in the case, Nadav Weissman.

Meanwhile, the Palestinian activist who captured the footage of the shooting has received hundreds of death threats, and his house has been surrounded and attacked by Israeli settlers multiple times.

An Israeli army spokesperson did not respond to an email by Ma’an asking if the army was taking measures to provide protection for the activist, who lives meters away from an Israeli military outpost in the occupied West Bank city of Hebron, near where the shooting took place.

Amnesty International released a statement Wednesday saying that the conviction of Elor Azarya was "a rare occurrence in a country with a long record of using excessive and unwarranted force, and where soldiers who may have committed crimes under international law very seldom face prosecution. The verdict is a small step in the right direction and offers a glimmer of hope that soldiers who commit unlawful killings may no longer go unpunished.”

“Sadly, this case is just the tip of the iceberg. Time and again we have witnessed cases where Israeli forces appear to have carried out unlawful killings, displaying an appalling disregard for human life. The authorities’ repeated failure to hold anyone accountable for flagrant violations has fostered a culture in which unlawful killings have become acceptable,” said Philip Luther, research and advocacy director for the Middle East and North Africa at Amnesty International.

Amnesty International said that it had sent a memorandum to Israeli authorities in September, citing at least 20 cases of apparently unlawful killings of Palestinians by Israeli forces, of which at least 15 were deliberately shot dead despite posing no imminent threat to life.

A report released by Human Right Watch (HRW) documented evidence that Israeli authorities have endorsed a “shoot-to-kill” policy against Palestinians since a wave of unrest began in October 2015.

HRW has noted that Israel’s shoot-to-kill policy has received widespread support among Israeli citizens, citing a 2016 poll by the Israel Democracy Institute which found that 47 percent of Jewish Israelis supported the sentiment that “any Palestinian who carries out a terror attack against Jews should be killed on the spot, even if he has been captured and clearly does not pose a threat.”
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