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Israeli soldier caught on film shooting Palestinian is charged

An Israeli solider sits inside a military court in Tel Aviv that has indicted him for manslaughter after the fatal shooting of a wounded Palestinian attacker last month in Hebron, on the West Bank. Picture by Ariel Schalit/AP

AN ISRAELI military court has charged a soldier with manslaughter over the fatal shooting of a wounded Palestinian attacker in the West Bank, an incident caught on tape that has deeply divided the nation.

The soldier, a medic, Sergeant Elor Azaria, has also been charged with inappropriate military conduct.

The shooting took place last month in Hebron, a West Bank city that has been a focal point of a seven-month wave of Israeli-Palestinian violence.

Initially the military had said two Palestinians stabbed and wounded a soldier before troops killed the pair.

A video released later by the Israeli human rights group B'Tselem showed one of the attackers, still alive and lying on the ground, before a soldier calmly raised his rifle, cocked his weapon and fired at the assailant's head. A post-mortem examination later determined the bullet to the head was the cause of death.

His lawyer, Ilan Katz, said Azaria acted as expected from a combat soldier and would seek a full acquittal. It was not immediately clear what sentence the soldier faces, if convicted. Such indictments in the military are very rare, according to Israeli rights group Yesh Din.

The shooting has polarised Israeli society. The country's defence minister, its military chief and other top officials called it contrary to the army's values since the Palestinian attacker had been subdued and no longer posed a threat. That outcry in turn kicked up a torrent of support for the soldier, who claims he feared the attacker was carrying an explosive belt.

Right-wing politicians have rushed to the soldier's defence, with many Israelis calling his actions appropriate for a country reeling from months of Palestinian attacks, mostly stabbings, which have killed 28 Israelis and two Americans. At least 188 Palestinians have died by Israeli fire in the same period, including 142 who Israel says were attacking or trying to attack Israelis.

A Tel Aviv rally in solidarity with the soldier is scheduled for Tuesday night, with top Israeli musicians due to perform. However, Eyal Golan, one of Israel's most recognisable artists, later dropped out of the event and said he had intended to "support this soldier and embrace his family" but reconsidered so that he did not appear to be coming out against the military chief.

Yohanan Plesner, head of the Israel Democracy Institute, said such a rally was an affront to the military, Israel's most hallowed institution.

"Our soldiers are faced daily with complex situations and in the majority of cases they succeed in responding in a way that is consistent with proper ethical norms," he said. "Holding a support rally for a soldier that shot a neutralised terrorist harms the strength of the IDF because it erodes the very values on which the army stands."

The indictment against the soldier came just hours after the Israeli military said it had discovered and destroyed a tunnel burrowing from Gaza into Israel - the first tunnel to be discovered since Israel's 2014 war with the militant Islamic Hamas movement that rules the coastal strip.

Israeli troops detected the tunnel's exit, still underground, several days ago, according to military spokesman Lt Col Peter Lerner, who added the tunnel is believed to have been built since the war's conclusion. It extended several hundred metre from Gaza into Israel and was lined with cement and fitted out with electricity, ventilation and rail tracks to cart away dirt from digging, Lt Col Lerner said.

In 2014, Israel destroyed more than 30 tunnels Hamas had dug under the border. More than 2,200 Palestinians, about two-thirds of them civilians, were killed in the 50-day summer war. On the Israeli side, 66 soldiers and seven civilians were killed.

Hamas has vowed to rebuild the tunnel network. This year, 14 people died in Gaza while digging tunnels aimed at attacking Israelis or hiding weapons and rocket launch sites. Israelis living near the Gaza Strip have reported hearing digging sounds under their homes in recent months.

Prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Israel has achieved a "global breakthrough in the ability to locate tunnels" and the government was investing considerable capital in countering the tunnel threat.

"This is an ongoing effort that will not end overnight," he said.

The Qassam Brigades, the armed wing of Hamas, said the newly discovered and destroyed tunnel was "just a drop in the ocean of what the resistance has prepared to defend its people, free its sanctuaries and prisoners".

Spokesman Eyal Brandeis, of Kibbutz Sufa - just across the border from the southern Gaza Strip – told Israel Radio the tunnel's exit would have been near his community. In 2014, Palestinian gunmen attempted to attack Israel through another tunnel near the kibbutz.

"All the worries and fears residents here had... are coming back," Mr Brandeis said.

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