Hebron shooter asks IDF chief for leniency, but sticks to story
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Hebron shooter asks IDF chief for leniency, but sticks to story

In letter missing clear confession of guilt or remorse, Elor Azaria tells army chief he won't take case to Supreme Court, complains of 'stain' on his reputation

Judah Ari Gross is The Times of Israel's military correspondent.

Former IDF Sgt. Elor Azaria, who was convicted of manslaughter for shooting dead a supine, injured Palestinian attacker in 2016, waits before the start of his appeal sentencing hearing in the Kirya military base, Tel Aviv, July 30, 2017. (Avshalom Sasoni/Flash90)
Former IDF Sgt. Elor Azaria, who was convicted of manslaughter for shooting dead a supine, injured Palestinian attacker in 2016, waits before the start of his appeal sentencing hearing in the Kirya military base, Tel Aviv, July 30, 2017. (Avshalom Sasoni/Flash90)

A former IDF soldier convicted of manslaughter for killing a Palestinian assailant decided to forgo another appeal in his case, instead asking the head of the military for leniency in a letter sent on Thursday.

In his request to IDF Chief of Staff Gadi Eisenkot, Elor Azaria, who last year shot dead an incapacitated Palestinian assailant after an attack in Hebron, repeated his claim that he believed at the time that the attacker had an explosive device, which he could have used to kill people on the scene.

“I want to clarify that if I’d known at the time what was later learned, which is to say, that there wasn’t an explosive device on the terrorist, I would not have shot him,” Azaria said in his letter.

Missing from the letter was any clear expression of guilt or remorse, which an army official has said would be needed as a precondition for leniency.

Azaria was charged in 2016 after a video showed him shooting to death Abdel Fattah al-Sharif, approximately 11 minutes after the Palestinian assailant had been been shot while trying to stab two soldiers in the West Bank city of Hebron.

Throughout the trial, Azaria’s legal team claimed he shot Sharif in a snap decision, believing the attacker, who Azaria said was slightly moving, may have been armed with a hidden explosives vest or could have lunged for his knife.

Prosecutors maintained there was no obvious danger from the critically injured attacker, who had been shot by another soldier and whose knife was more than 80 centimeters (2.5 feet) away, and that Azaria shot Sharif in the head to avenge his comrades, one of whom was injured in the attack.

An IDF soldier loading his weapon before he appears to shoot an apparently unarmed, prone Palestinian assailant in the head following a stabbing attack in Hebron on March 24, 2016. (Screen capture: B'Tselem)
An IDF soldier loading his weapon before he appears to shoot an apparently unarmed, prone Palestinian assailant in the head following a stabbing attack in Hebron on March 24, 2016. (Screen capture: B’Tselem)

The divisive case had revealed deep rifts in Israeli society, with some seeing Azaria as a hero and others as a criminal.

Azaria, who was released from the military last month at the end of his required three-year service, wrote in his letter how difficult this trial has been for his family, noting his mother’s reliance on sleeping pills and his father’s stroke.

“I’m supposed to continue my life with the large stain of a ‘manslaughter’ conviction, which will harm me and not allow me to work in government jobs,” Azaria said.

He was convicted in January in a military district court. A month later, he was sentenced to 18 months in prison and a demotion to private. In March, he appealed the verdict, taking the case to the army’s appellate court.

On Sunday, Azaria’s conviction and sentence were upheld by the higher court, which dismissed his testimony that he’d feared for his life, citing his nonchalance in the moments before he opened fire and killed Sharif.

Shortly after the appeals court’s verdict, Eisenkot said in a statement that he would seriously consider a request for leniency from Azaria. However, a senior military source later clarified that this would only be an option if Azaria expressed “real” remorse for his actions, something Azaria had not done up until that point.

Azaria was given until August 9 to decide if he would ask the Israeli Supreme Court to hear his appeal — as a soldier convicted in a military court, this request would not be automatically accepted — or if he would simply start his prison sentence.

In his letter to Eisenkot on Thursday, Azaria officially said he would not be seeking to appeal to the Supreme Court.

IDF Chief of Staff Gadi Eisenkot speaks at the Herzliya Conference in the Israeli coastal city on June 20, 2017. (Hagai Fried/Herzliya Conference)
IDF Chief of Staff Gadi Eisenkot speaks at the Herzliya Conference in the Israeli coastal city on June 20, 2017. (Hagai Fried/Herzliya Conference)

Azaria asked Eisenkot to “convert the prison sentence that was given to me into a punishment that I could fulfill with community service, as it is my desire to return to a normal life and to rehabilitate my life and the life of my family, in order to pick up the pieces.”

Azaria’s attorney, Yoram Sheftel, noted in a statement that the former soldier “did not express regret” in his letter. However, the lawyer said that “in the chief of staff’s public statement this week he never made a request for leniency dependent upon an expression of regret.”

After the court rejected both Azaria’s attorneys’ appeal to overturn his conviction and an appeal by the prosecution to make his punishment harsher, politicians and public figures, including Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman, called for Azaria to be pardoned.

Since the crime was committed when he was a soldier, such a pardon could only come from IDF Chief of Staff Gadi Eisenkot or President Reuven Rivlin, who would only make such a decision with Eisenkot’s approval.

The pardoning process for presidents is an arduous one compared to that of the chief of staff, and would require recommendations from the IDF’s chief prosecutor, the head of the IDF’s Manpower Directorate, the chief of staff, and the defense minister.

If Azaria enters prison on August 9 as scheduled, he would only have to serve half his sentence, or nine months, before being eligible for parole, though there is no guarantee that he would receive it. This is different than in civilian criminal law, where a prisoner has to complete two-thirds of his or her sentence before they have a chance at early release.

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