Israel’s PM wants pardon for soldier who killed Palestinian
Elor Azaria is found guilty of manslaughter in a case that has deeply divided Israel
A military court sitting in Tel Aviv ruled that Sgt Elor Azaria, who was 19 at the time, had acted outside the army’s rules of engagement when he killed Abdel Fattah al-Sharif in Hebron last March. Photograph: Heidi Levine, Pool via AP
The Tel Aviv military court has found soldier Elor Azaria guilty of manslaughter for shooting a wounded Palestinian attacker as he lay on the ground in the West Bank city of Hebron last March, in a trial that deeply divided Israel.
The military judges rejected Sgt Azaria’s claim that he felt his life was in danger, noting that he had told a fellow soldier that the Palestinian should die because he had stabbed his friend, another soldier.
Sentencing is expected in the next few weeks.
Manslaughter carries a maximum 20-year term in Israel, but most commentators predict a much shorter jail term.
After the verdict, prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu said he supported pardoning Azaria in a post on his Facebook page.
“This is a difficult and painful day - first and foremost for Elor, his family, Israel’s soldiers, many citizens and parents of soldiers, among them me . . . I support granting a pardon to Elor Azaria,” Mr Netanyahu said on his Facebook page.
A poll published on Wednesday night by Israel’s Channel 2 television also showed that 67 per cent of respondents favoured a pardon.
As the decision was being read at a heavily guarded military court in Tel Aviv, several hundred far-right backers of Azaria - one of them carrying a Donald Trump “Make America Great Again” banner - clashed with police outside the facility.
Much of the protesters’ anger was aimed at Israel defence forces chief of staff Lt Gen Gadi Eizenkot, who had repeatedly criticised Azaria’s actions.
Right-wing politicians had defended the soldier’s actions, noting that the incident, which was videoed by a local Palestinian human rights activist, occurred during a wave of Palestinian attacks against Israeli soldiers and civilians.
A social media campaign in support of Azaria had been launched, funds were raised for the defence team and demonstrations were held, where Azaria was dubbed “everyone’s soldier”.
The top military echelon, backed by left and centrist politicians, condemned the soldier’s actions as a clear violation of the army’s ethical code.
After the verdict was announced, the Azaria family announced that they will appeal, as right-wing politicians immediately launched a campaign for clemency to prevent the convicted soldier going to jail.
Relatives described the verdict as “a disgrace”, saying the three-judge panel “should be ashamed of themselves”.
Leading the campaign to pardon Azaria were politicians from the right-wing Jewish Home and prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s own Likud party.
Transport minister Yisrael Katz, of Likud, said that, following the trial, “the government and army must now take responsibility and pardon the soldier, who we sent to the front line to protect Israelis from Palestinian terror”.
Jewish Home Knesset member Shuli Moalem-Refaeli circulated a petition among legislators calling for defence minister Avigdor Lieberman to pardon Azaria, even if he had made a mistake.
Mr Lieberman, who also heads the right-wing Yisrael Beiteinu party, had been one of the first politicians to speak out in support of the soldier, travelling to a trial session in a show of solidarity.
However, that was when he was in the opposition.
After joining the government when appointed as defence minister by Mr Netanyahu, he changed his tune, falling in line with the army’s top brass.
After Wednesday’s verdict, he urged the Israeli public to accept what he called the “difficult” ruling, stating that it was important for the nation to respect the court’s decision, “including those who like the ruling and also those, like me, who like the decision much less”.
Some on the left also backed the call for a pardon.
Zionist Union MK Shelly Yachimovich, a former head of the Labour party, praised the court ruling, but said the entire trial was a symptom of the deep division within Israeli society.
“Azaria’s shoulders are not broad enough to bear the weight of that rift. Therefore, we must carefully consider the possibility of pardoning him,” she said.
The Palestinian foreign ministry called the proceedings a “show trial” which distracted from a wider culture of impunity for Israeli forces.
“The majority of Israeli officials, including prime minister Netanyahu, and several of his ministers, have embarked upon defending the murderer Azaria,” the statement said.
Additional reporting: Reuters