A former Israel Defense Forces soldier convicted of shooting dead a wounded Palestinian stabber began his 18-month prison term Wednesday after months of legal wrangling to delay the sentence and calls from lawmakers for him to be pardoned.
Speaking outside the family’s home in Ramle, Azaria’s attorney Yoram Sheftel said it was a “sad day” for Israel.
“This is a sad day for the state, for the IDF and for some 85 to 90 percent of the citizens of Israel. This is a day of happiness for the Arab enemy and therefore this a day of happiness for the Israeli media,” he said. “Never before has a person gone to prison when so many citizens regret he is going to prison.”
Sheftel, who joined Azaria’s legal team after his conviction of manslaughter in January, also said he was not to blame for the failure to convince judges to overturn Azaria’s conviction and sentence or consent to a delay in carrying it out.
In addition to Sheftel, a number of supporters gathered outside the family’s home to see Azaria off, many of them wearing shirts with images of the former soldier and holding signs and posters expressing their support.
After leaving the family’s home in Ramle to shouts of “Elor is a hero,” Azaria was driven to Prison Four in the Tzrifin military base in central Israel among a convoy of cars flying flags with his image over an Israeli flag.
Getting out of the car outside the prison, Azaria and his family were swarmed by photographers and journalists seeking comment, prompting the ever-smiling Azaria to get back in the car.
Driving on into the prison, the family was escorted by IDF officers who attempted to clear a path amid the crowds of journalists. One of Azaria’s brothers shoved a photographer and yelled, “Back away from the car,” with his sister attempting to calm him.
“Thanks very much to all the supporters and all of the Israeli people,” Azaria’s father, Charlie, told reporters before getting into the car to drive into the prison.
On Tuesday evening, Azaria and his family held a going-away party at their home alongside friends and supporters, where Azaria embraced his mother, Oshra, and father, Charlie, as the song “Mother’s Hero” by Israeli pop star Moshe Peretz played in the background.
Despite a bid by Azaria to delay the start of his 18-month sentence until IDF Chief of Staff Gadi Eisenkot responds to his request for leniency, the Military Court of Appeals on Tuesday rejected his request, citing a 2010 ruling that a pardon request is not sufficient grounds for delaying the start of a prison term.
Azaria was tried for shooting dead Abdel Fattah al-Sharif, approximately 11 minutes after the Palestinian assailant had been shot, injured and disarmed while trying to stab two soldiers in the West Bank city of Hebron on March 2016.
The divisive case revealed deep rifts in Israeli society, with some seeing Azaria as a hero while others consider him a villain.
He was convicted by a district-level military court in January. Two months later, Azaria’s attorneys appealed the verdict.
On July 30, Azaria’s conviction and sentence were upheld by a military court, which dismissed his testimony that he’d feared for his life, citing his nonchalance in the moments before he opened fire and killed al-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 would only be an option if Azaria expressed “real” remorse for his actions, something Azaria had not done up until that point.
In a personal letter, Azaria asked Eisenkot to commute his 18-month sentence to a punishment of community service. However, he did not express regret for his actions.
Such contrition was also absent from his first-ever public statement, which he posted as a video to Facebook last Thursday. “I promise you that I acted out of a sense of immediate danger at the scene of the attack. But the court gave its ruling, and we live in a nation of laws. So I’m going to serve the prison sentence handed down, in the hope that it will be reduced,” he said.
Eisenkot has in the past expressed criticism of a public perception of Azaria as “everybody’s child.” He also said the case was rife with “manipulations and lies.”
Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.