Israeli soldier begins prison term amid clamour for clemency

Case of Elor Azaria, who shot dead a wounded Palestinian attacker, has divided country

Elor Azaria (centre) talks to the media next to  family members as he arrives at the Tzrifin military prison in the city of Ramla, Israel, on Wednesday. Photograph: Abir Sultan/EPA

Elor Azaria (centre) talks to the media next to family members as he arrives at the Tzrifin military prison in the city of Ramla, Israel, on Wednesday. Photograph: Abir Sultan/EPA

 

Cheered on by supporters, the former Israeli soldier convicted of killing a wounded Palestinian attacker as he lay on the ground began serving an 18-month prison term on Wednesday as right-wing politicians pressed for clemency.

Elor Azaria, a combat medic who completed his three-year compulsory army service earlier this year, entered the military jail in the centre of the country as supporters with Israeli flags cheered him on, shouting “Elor is a hero” and “Justice will be done”.

Speaking outside the family’s home in the central Israeli city of Ramle, Azaria’s lawyer Yoram Sheftel said his client was going to jail but the public was solidly behind him.

“This is a sad day for the state, for the Israel Defence Forces and for some 85 to 90 per cent of the citizens of Israel. This is a day of happiness for the Arab enemy and the Israeli media,” he said. “Never before has a person gone to prison when so many citizens regret he is going to prison.”

Azaria was found guilty of manslaughter by a military court in January for killing incapacitated Palestinian attacker Abdel Fatah al-Sharif in the West Bank city of Hebron in March 2016. He was sentenced to 18 months in prison and demoted to private in February.

Bitter divisions

The case has bitterly divided Israel and resonates deeply in a society where the overwhelming majority of young people serve in the armed forces, many as combat soldiers in the occupied West Bank.

Right-wing supporters, who dubbed Azaria “everyone’s child”, argued that any Palestinian militant who attacks soldiers with a knife deserves to die.

A poll commissioned by the Yisrael Hayom newspaper found that 70 per cent believed the soldier should be pardoned immediately.

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

However, senior generals stressed the importance of upholding the army’s code of ethics and the rule of law, noting that the soldier was not in danger when he opened fire at the assailant as he lay on the ground.

Last week, the military court of appeals decided to uphold Azaria’s manslaughter conviction and the court rejected a defence request to postpone the beginning of his prison sentence until IDF chief of staff Gadi Eisenkot decides whether or not to commute his sentence.

Eisenkot is expected to decide by early September if he will commute the 18-month sentence as demanded by right-wing politicians.

Azaria refused to express any regret for his actions, which were caught on video by a human rights activist, but he did say he wouldn’t have opened fire if he had known the assailant wasn’t wearing an explosive belt.