Israel deeply split over soldier’s conviction for manslaughter

As many seek a pardon for Elor Azaria, security is assigned to military judges in case

Rajaa and Yousri with a picture of their son Abdul Fatah al-Sharif who was killed by Israeli soldier Elor Azaria as he lay wounded on the ground. Photograph: Hazem Bader/AFP/Getty Images

Most Israelis support granting a pardon to Sgt Elor Azaria, who was convicted on Wednesday of manslaughter and conduct unbecoming over the shooting of an immobilised Palestinian assailant in the West Bank city of Hebron last March.

A poll commissioned by the Yisrael Hayom newspaper found that 70 per cent believed the soldier should be pardoned immediately, while 19 per cent opposed a pardon and 11 per cent said they had no opinion.

Prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu and many of his right-wing ministers have also expressed support for pardoning Azaria.

Israeli solider Sgt Elor Azaria who was convicted of manslaughter in the deadly shooting of an incapacitated Palestinian attacker. Photograph: Heidi Levine/Pool via AP

An exception was defence minister Avigdor Lieberman, who warned that politicians' expressing an opinion on the issue were undermining the judicial process.


“I’m not authorised to pardon anyone, that’s up to the chief of staff. Calls for a pardon are propaganda and indicate ignorance” of the law, he said.

“I expect all ministers to hold their tongues. All the slogans we’re hearing right now are meant to serve those saying them, not Azaria. We all have our opinions on this case, and no one is trying to ignore reality, but we are all obligated to accept the court’s ruling.”

Opposition politicians criticised Mr Netanyahu's call for clemency. Zionist Union Knesset member Erel Margalit said it was time to speak out clearly.

“The prime minister has lost all restraint and is trying to obviate the judiciary, tear apart the IDF, and harm the chief of staff. This is insanity.”

Despite the public clamour for clemency, the chances of the army granting a pardon are slim and President Reuven Rivlin said he will only consider a request at the appropriate time. With Azaria still facing sentencing and an appeals process, the matter may not come before the president for some time.

Judge branded a Nazi

The Azaria trial deeply divided Israeli society between those defending the soldier, arguing that “all terrorists deserve to die”, and those who stressed the importance of upholding the army’s code of ethics and the rule of law.

It appears that the divide has only intensified since Wednesday’s court verdict.

A security detail has been assigned to the three military judges who unanimously convicted the soldier after a wave of invective and incitement on social media following the conviction. The main target was presiding judge Col Maya Heller. Numerous supporters of Azaria cursed her, called her a Nazi, and publicly hoped for her death.

Police arrested a Jerusalem man and a woman from the southern town of Kiryat Gat whose social media posts police said amounted to "incitement to violence" against the judges.

"Take a grenade and blow up the judge and scatter all of her parts in different places – let the dogs eat her," the 22-year-old woman allegedly wrote on Facebook.

The Azaria family distanced themselves from the incitement.

Some soldiers also initiated a social media protest threatening to disobey orders if Azaria is sent to prison. Images were posted online alongside guns and military uniforms, with one sign reading: “Elor goes to prison – we all go to prison.”