The father of an Israeli soldier convicted of manslaughter for killing a disarmed and wounded Palestinian assailant, made an emotional appeal Tuesday for leniency from the court as a sentencing hearing for his son got underway in Tel Aviv.
Sergeant Elor Azaria, 20, was convicted by a military court last month for killing Abdel Fattah al-Sharif in the West Bank city of Hebron on March 24, 2016, in a case that has deeply divided the country.
A smiling Azaria arrived Tuesday at the military court in Defense Ministry headquarters in Tel Aviv, where he was applauded by his family, with his mother, Oshra, taking him in her arms.
Charlie Azaria told the court that he believed his son and the rest of his family had suffered enough since the soldier was arrested some 10 months ago.
“I want to tell you that this punishment of 10 months is enough,” the longtime former police officer testified at the hearing, where he took the stand as a character witness.
“It has been 10 months since we stopped living. We are suffering. After everything I’ve given to the country, this is physical and psychological abuse … We are out of energy,” he added, breaking down in tears.
“The IDF cast aside my son. The IDF didn’t give us any attention,” he said.
He described how, in the period leading up to the shooting, his son had found himself under increasing pressure from his military duties and was losing heart.
“I saw Elor losing the joy he got from serving as a company medic. I understood that he had a problem with his commanders. Elor said to me two days before the incident, ‘It is becoming hard from me, Father, they are adding more and more objectives and then coming to me with complaints.'”
In the days after the shooting, Charlie Azaria said, “the family collapsed, I had a stroke, and after rehabilitation I managed to stand on my feet since I set for myself to stand beside Elor.” His wife had suffered a dramatic weight loss.
He added that the family have received threats that Hamas would kill his son. “After the court decision we received threats that only the Palestinians will give the sentencing and they will make sure to kill him.”
A few days ago, the senior Azaria said, a rifle bullet was left in the family’s mailbox.
Turning to his son’s attributes, Charlie Azaria told the court that Elor “spreads light wherever he goes.”
Describing Azaria junior as a “chubby kid,” the father said his son ended up serving in a combat unit through “incredible determination to protect the State of Israel.”
The hearing began with procedural arguments during which the judges became irritated at defense attorneys who sought to summon Col. Guy Hazut, the head of the Kfir Brigade in which Azaria serves.
Hazut two weeks ago visited Azaria’s father, Charlie, and encouraged him to fire his attorneys and forgo an appeal — in an apparent breach of legal protocol. Recordings of the conversation were published by Channel 2.
Judges responded to the request to call Hazut by advising the attorneys to stay focused on the defense of their client.
“What is more important — to direct the defense or to chop off some heads?” Judge Lt. Col. Carmel Vahavi demanded, referring to what appeared to be an attempt by the defense to discredit Hazut.
The three judges and prosecutor entered the courtroom accompanied by bodyguards, a precaution taken after they were threatened with violence by supporters of Azaria in the wake of his January 4 conviction. Threats were also made against the army chief of staff and arrests were made in the days after the conviction.
As the hearing began on Tuesday, around 50 protesters gathered outside with a sign saying “The people support and salute the hero, soldier Elor Azaria.”
They were surrounded by around 60 police officers and there was no violence.
The soldier faces up to 20 years in prison, though there have been reports that prosecutors will recommend between three and five years. 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.
Among those who will testify to Azaria’s character is Yuval Lavi, mayor of Ramle, the soldier’s hometown.
Azaria, who will be allowed to take the stand and address the court, is expected to ask the judges to consider his parents’ health problems. His attorneys have also indicated they will appeal the conviction.
In a failed bid to prevent an appeal, the army’s legal team recently offered Azaria a prison sentence of 18 months, not including time served. In exchange, the Kfir Brigade soldier would agree to forgo 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.
For the past ten months Azaria has been in open detention, confined to his base at the battalion headquarters in Nachshonim. According to Haaretz he only spent one week in actual jail before he was released by the head of the military appeals court. The time spent on his base will not be wiped from his eventual sentence although the judges may take it into consideration, the report said.
On the morning of the incident, 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 Qasrawi and severely injuring 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 Sharif in the head as he lay on the ground, killing him. The shooting was caught on video and spread widely online.
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.
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.
The sentencing process is set to continue next Tuesday.