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Israeli right-wing protesters demonstrate outside a military court during a hearing of an Israeli soldier whom the military said has been arrested after he shot a wounded and motionless Palestinian assailant in Hebron on March 24, near the southern Israeli city of Kiryat Malachi, in this March 29, 2016 file picture. REUTERS/Amir Cohen/Files

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By Dan Williams

TEL AVIV (Reuters) - To Israel's military prosecutors, a soldier who fired a bullet into the head of a wounded and motionless Palestinian assailant may be guilty of homicide. To many Israelis, he is a hero.

That has fuelled an unprecedented debate over the role and ethics of Israel's conscript armed forces, long the symbol of national unity among the majority Jewish population where deep concern about security is largely shared across social and political divisions.

So while Israel's military chief has cautioned against the use of excessive force against a wave of Palestinian street attacks, an opinion poll last week found 57 percent of Israelis think the soldier should never been arrested.

Only 5 percent said they would characterise the shooting, in the West Bank city of Hebron on March 24, as murder.

The soldier - whose name has been barred from publication - was captured on video shooting the Palestinian as the man lay wounded from army fire after taking part in a stabbing attack. A Palestinian pathologist said the defendant fired the fatal shot.

The soldier was initially held on a murder warrant but prosecutors later told a military court they expected to file a manslaughter indictment. Even under the lighter charge, reflecting a view that the killing was not premeditated, he could be imprisoned for up to 20 years.

His lawyers say the soldier opened fire fearing the Palestinian had a hidden bomb.

The rancour has laid bare rifts over the near 50-year occupation of the West Bank, the clash of hardline Jewish values with secular law, and some Israelis' disdain for security tactics they deem too forgiving towards the Palestinians.

"I don't think there has ever been anything like this in our history," chief military spokesman Brigadier-General Moti Almoz told Army Radio, referring to the public focus on the case.

Pointing to the poll, broadcast on Israel's Channel 2 news, columnist Ari Shavit wrote in the liberal Haaretz daily that Israeli society, which once sought to "preserve our purity of arms", is now demanding its leaders look away from what he called a cold-blooded killing.

Since October, Palestinians have killed 28 Israelis and two U.S. citizens. Israeli forces have killed at least 190 Palestinians, 129 of whom Israel says were assailants. Many others were shot dead during clashes and protests.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has said the soldier's actions "do not represent" the military's values, but has pulled back from condemning him.

With strong expressions of support for the conscript echoing in his right-wing cabinet, Netanyahu took the unusual step of phoning the soldier's father, telling him "I understand your distress" and promising a fair investigation.

According to comrades whose testimony was presented by prosecutors, the suspect said the Palestinian "deserved to die" as he calmly took aim - pointing to a revenge motive seemingly shored up by the suspect's far-right politics in Facebook posts.

Some of his supporters argue that Palestinian assailants should always be killed even when they no longer pose immediate danger. "Death to Terrorists" is a common rallying cry at their roadside demonstrations and online petitions.

Israeli Chief Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef may have implicitly blessed this view, saying Talmudic instruction on pre-empting a threat - "when someone comes to kill you, arise and kill him first" - trumps today's standards for pre-emptive self-defence.

The ancient precept, Yosef said in a March 12 sermon, can be obeyed "without fear of the High Court or any military chief".

EXTRA-JUDICIAL

Few Palestinians or foreign critics of Israeli policy have been surprised by the Hebron shooting or the groundswell of popular solidarity with the suspect.

They have long accused Israel of extra-judicial killings of Palestinian suspects - a charge Israel denies - and believe the Hebron affair erupted due to the fact the killing was filmed by B'Tselem, a human rights group critical of Israel's occupation.

Israel has also come under criticism internationally for Palestinian civilian casualties during fighting against militants in the Gaza Strip, where war was last waged in 2014. Israel says it tries to avoid the deaths of innocents but notes that the Hamas movement, which runs the enclave, deployed gunmen, rockets and munitions in heavily populated areas.

Education Minister Naftali Bennett, head of the ultra-nationalist Jewish Home party in Netanyahu's coalition, says the soldier is being condemned "to mollify B'Tselem and the world".

Israel has aired similar censure of Breaking the Silence, another internationally-sponsored NGO that publishes soldiers' allegations of possible war crimes. The military says the group should share its findings to enable formal probes.

Asa Kasher, a Tel Aviv University philosophy professor who composed the Israeli military's ethical code, said the armed forces' conduct compared favourably with Western democracies involved in similar conflict situations.

But Kasher acknowledged that the growing clout of Jewish religious nationalists, and the rhetoric of their public figures, posed a challenge for Israel and its military.

"The political posture around the ongoing (West Bank) occupation is a really huge question that differentiates us from the Americans in Afghanistan and so on," he told Reuters.

"The IDF (Israel Defence Forces) functions on the basis of young people who are inducted, bring their own views from the street, and there is always the danger that they will act on their own accord and shoot when there's no need," Kasher said.

"That is why it is so important to have ethical doctrines and officers who uphold them."

(Writing by Dan Williams; Editing by Jeffrey Heller/Jeremy Gaunt)

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