Right-wing lawmakers made swift calls for an immediate pardon for IDF soldier Elor Azaria Tuesday, following a court decision to jail him for 18 months over the killing of a disarmed, incapacitated Palestinian assailant last year.
The case has opened deep fissures in Israeli society, with some on the left seeing it as a test case for the army’s commitment to law and order and those on the right seeing Azaria as a victim of his circumstances who should avoid punishment.
“The security of the citizens of Israel requires an immediate pardon for Elor Azaria, who was sent to protect us. The process was tainted from its foundation. It is forbidden for Elor to sit in jail because we will all pay the price,” Education Minister Naftali Bennett of the right-wing Jewish Home party posted on Twitter.
By contrast Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman, who had called for a pardon before he was appointed to the post, did not reiterate the call. “Now, after the sentencing, I hope that the two sides will do what is necessary to finish this issue for good,” Liberman wrote. “As I’ve said in the past, even those who don’t like the verdict or the sentence are bound to respect the court, and as I’ve also said, the military must stand at the side of the soldier and his family.”
Azaria was convicted in January in the shooting death of Abdel Fattah al-Sharif on March 24, 2016, following a stabbing attack carried out by Sharif and another Palestinian man in the West Bank city of Hebron. The second man was shot and killed in the course of the attack. Azaria, a combat medic, was filmed shooting Sharif in the head as he lay wounded on the ground several minutes later.
After Azaria was convicted of manslaughter in the case, several right-wing lawmakers, including Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, had called for him to be pardoned.
Though the sentence was far less than the three to five years the military prosecution had sought in the case, Azaria’s lawyers said he would appeal. They were granted a 12-day delay in the start of Azaria’s jail term to prepare the paperwork. Meanwhile, Azaria remains confined to base.
Outside the courtroom, right-wing activists rallied in support of Azaria, holding signs calling for the death of terrorists and urging US President Donald Trump to help the soldier. Police said there were no arrests.
A source close to President Reuven Rivlin, who could hand down a pardon, said no such request had been made as yet.
Likud Transportation Minister Yisrael Katz wrote on Facebook that “the court said its piece, the legal process is done. Now is the time for clemency, to return Elor to his home.”
Housing and Construction Minister Yoav Galant of the Kulanu party, a former IDF general, also called on the defense minister and IDF chief of staff to grant Azaria a pardon immediately.
He said the trial took a “heavy toll on the army and Israeli society” and that in light of the punishment, and “for the sake of uniting the rifts between parts of the nation, we must exercise common sense and a measure of mercy.”
Likud MK Anat Berko tweeted that the verdict was harsh but the sentencing was lenient. “The verdict of Elor was [stringent like the school] of Beit Shammai, the sentence was [lenient, like the school] of Beit Hillel. As a society we have to condemn the act but consider the situation of a soldier, and his standing as an outstanding soldier.”
In a similar vein, Likud’s Yehudah Glick tweeted: “I praise the military legal system for its balanced sentence.”
Opposition leader Zionist Union MK Isaac Herzog tweeted: “Elor Azaria is the victim of impossible political circumstances that Israel has been evading for decades. The government and security officials should look at ways to prevent the next incident,” in apparent reference to Israel’s occupation of the West Bank, which requires a military presence to provide security.
Several dovish lawmakers pushed back at the use of Azaria’s case as a political football, decrying the immediate calls for a pardon.
Yair Lapid, head of the opposition Yesh Atid party, said that Azaria had made a serious mistake under difficult circumstances, and called for his commanders to consider a pardon. “However,” he added,” the ones who must decide this are the commanders. The politicians must stop weighing in on what happens in the army.”
In contrast, his fellow Yesh Atid MK Ofer Shelah wrote on Facebook that an immediate pardon would make a mockery of the system.
Zehava Galon, head of the left-wing Meretz opposition party, also came out against the politicians calling for Azaria to be pardoned, saying they are showing “contempt for the sentence [and] lending legitimacy and seeking to whitewash acts that have a big black flag flying above them.”
Youssef Jabareen of the Joint (Arab) List said, “The sentence does not reflect the severity of the act and it sends the harsh message that Palestinian blood is worthless. The case of Azaria is not an isolated incident but part of a widespread manifestation of the army, supported by the politicians, and nourished by not prosecuting soldiers.”
Jabareen added that last month he asked the attorney general to open an investigation against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in the wake of his calls for a pardon for Azaria, claiming that by doing so Netanyahu may have perverted the course of justice. “It seems to me that the sentence was influenced by the statements of the prime minister and other ministers,” he said.
Sari Bashi, Israel and Palestine Advocacy director at Human Rights Watch, responded to the sentence by saying that “sending Elor Azaria to prison for his crime sends an important message about reining in excessive use of force. But senior Israeli officials should also repudiate the shoot-to-kill rhetoric that too many of them have promoted, even when there is no imminent threat of death. Pardoning Azaria or reducing his punishment would only encourage impunity for unlawfully taking the life of another person.”
Former Peace Now head Yariv Oppenheim wrote on Twitter that the sentence was “embarrassing in its leniency, and even more embarrassing is the conduct of politicians who still demand pardon for a man who shot a terrorist in the head, because he ‘deserved’ it.”
“A bloodthirsty state and the desire for revenge,” he wrote.