A military court will reconvene on Tuesday afternoon for the first sentencing hearing in the case of Sgt. Elor Azaria, a soldier who was convicted earlier this month of killing a wounded and disarmed Palestinian attacker in a case that has deeply divided Israeli society.
On January 4, a military court found Azaria guilty of manslaughter in the fatal shooting of Palestinian assailant Abdel Fattah al-Sharif in the West Bank city of Hebron on March 24. That morning, al-Sharif and another man, Ramzi Aziz al-Qasrawi, attacked two IDF soldiers stationed in Hebron, wounding one of them. The second opened fire at the assailants, killing al-Qasrawi and severely injuring al-Sharif.
Approximately 11 minutes later, Azaria, a combat medic who had been called to the scene, gave his helmet to another soldier, cocked his gun and shot al-Sharif in the head, killing him.
The sentencing hearing for Azaria was set to begin at noon on Tuesday.
The prosecution is expected to request three to five years in prison for Azaria at his sentencing hearing in the army’s Tel Aviv headquarters. The defense team will look to avoid jail-time and is expected to bring character witnesses, including former teachers, fellow servicemen and the soldier’s mother, to testify on his behalf.
Azaria is also expected to ask the judges to consider his parents, who have reportedly been suffering health problems. His attorneys have also indicated they will appeal the conviction.
In a failed bid to prevent that, the army’s legal team recently offered Azaria, 20, a prison sentence of 18 months, not including time served. In exchange, the Kfir Brigade soldier would agree to forego an appeal and would express regret for his actions, according to a Channel 10 news report on Monday night.
However, the family rejected the deal, the report said, quoting a source close to the Azarias.
Azaria’s conviction sparked a vicious debate in Israel, with many saying he was just doing his duty and that he was scapegoated by the army. The army’s top brass, however, condemned the shooting immediately, with the military spokesperson saying: “This is not the IDF, these are not the values of the IDF and these are not the values of the Jewish people.”
Nearly three-quarters of Israelis — 73 percent — feel the army top brass convicted Azaria in the press before the trial began, according to survey statistics revealed by the Institute for National Security Studies think tank on Tuesday.
Clashes and threats
Supporters of Azaria planned a protest outside army headquarters during the sentencing hearing, inviting people to attend through Facebook and the WhatsApp messaging application.
The demonstration outside the court during Azaria’s conviction at times turned violent, as supporters of Azaria — among them far-right supporters of the Beitar Jerusalem soccer club — clashed with police and border guards dispatched to maintain order.
Some protesters chanted: “Gadi be careful, Rabin is looking for a friend,” referring to the IDF Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Gadi Eisenkot and the slain former prime minister Yitzhak Rabin, who was assassinated by a right-wing extremist in 1995. Threats were also made against the military judges.
Azaria is not the first IDF soldier to be convicted of manslaughter, but it is exceedingly rare.
The last such case in Israel took place in 2003, when Sgt. Taysir Heib shot and mortally wounded British activist and photographer Tom Hurndall in Gaza. Heib initially claimed that he’d shot at an armed Palestinian, but when presented with evidence to the contrary, admitted that he’d fired at Hurndall, but hadn’t meant to hit him. Heib was found guilty a year later and sentenced to eight years in jail. He served six and a half before he was released early for good behavior.
Azaria’s case, however, has far more mitigating circumstances, notably the fact that al-Sharif had stabbed a soldier approximately 15 minutes before he was killed, which will likely result in a lighter sentence than Heib received.
Also expected to influence the prosecutor’s sentencing demands are his distinguished service record up until that point and, conversely, Azaria’s refusal during his trial to admit he was wrong or show contrition for the shooting.
The military court judges disregarded and criticized the claims made by the soldier’s attorneys throughout the trial that he opened fire because he believed that Sharif, who was slightly moving, still posed a threat to security forces in the area as he may have been wearing an explosive belt.
The justices, instead, found revenge to have been Azaria’s motivation, citing a comment made to his commander after the shooting that al-Sharif “deserved to die” for attacking a soldier.
“Elor didn’t raise concern of a knife or a bomb as an explanation for the shooting, but rather that terrorists deserve to die,” said the head judge, Col. Maya Heller, during the reading of the guilty verdict.
The honey trap
In recent weeks, Azaria’s attorneys have also sought to embarrass the army and its spokesperson’s unit.
After head of the Kfir Brigade, Col. Guy Hazut, visited the soldier’s father and encouraged him to fire his attorneys and forgo an appeal — in an apparent breach of legal protocol — Azaria’s attorneys leaked details of the meeting to Channel 2 news, assuming the army would deny it.
And indeed the IDF Spokesperson’s Unit quickly put out a statement refuting the details of the television report. The next day, the soldier’s lawyers provided Channel 2 news with a recording of the meeting, proving Hazut had told Azaria’s father to accept the deal in exchange for a lighter sentence for his son.
‘The spokesperson, like a fly, fell into the honey trap that we set for him’
“The spokesperson, like a fly, fell into the honey trap that we set for him,” Azaria’s lawyer Yoram Sheftel told Channel 2 news. “We knew that he’d lie about the content of the conversation.”
Support for Azaria has remained strong throughout the trial.
According to a flash survey commissioned by Channel 2 after the guitly verdict earlier this month, some 67 percent of Israelis said they supported clemency for Azaria, while 19% said he shouldn’t be pardoned.
Politicians from both sides of the aisle, including Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and former Labor party leader MK Shelly Yachimovich, have also come out in favor of a pardon for the Kfir Brigade soldier.
By law, there are two ways Azaria may obtain a pardon. All convicts, including soldiers, can appeal to the president, Reuven Rivlin. Soldiers can also turn to the IDF chief of staff, Lt. Gen. Gadi Eisenkot, who has the legal power to issue pardons for active-duty personnel.
Rivlin has said he would only consider a pardon after Azaria’s legal appeals are exhausted.
Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.