Politicians from across the political spectrum called Wednesday for a pardon for an IDF soldier who shot and killed an incapacitated Palestinian assailant, after he was convicted of manslaughter.
The Jaffa Military court convicted Sgt. Elor Azaria, 19, for shooting dead an incapacitated Palestinian who minutes before had stabbed two other soldiers. The decision, which his attorneys slammed as biased, concluded a months-long trial that deeply divided the country.
Azaria’s trial saw politicians and current and former army generals alternately supporting or condemning the soldier’s actions. Many of the army’s top brass, as well as former defense minister Moshe Ya’alon, had railed against Azaria’s “unethical” decision to shoot the assailant, Abdel Fattah al-Sharif, in the head nearly 15 minutes after the latter was shot and wounded as he attempted to stab an IDF soldier in Hebron.
Azaria was filmed shooting Sharif on March 24, 2016. The footage, which was published online shortly after the incident by the left-wing advocacy group B’Tselem, sparked an intense debate in Israel about military discipline and ethics in the midst of a wave of Palestinian terror attacks that began in September 2015.
Even before the final guilty verdict was read out by the judge, Culture Minister Miri Regev (Likud) called for an immediate pardon for Azaria and accused former defense minister Moshe Ya’alon of abandoning the soldier.
Moments after Judge Maya Heller finished nearly three hours of reading the verdict, Education Minister Naftali Bennett, head of the right-wing Jewish Home party, reiterated a call he made the previous day, saying Azaria must be pardoned “immediately, right now.”
Bennett urged Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman to ensure that Azaria not sit a single day in jail. Liberman did not discuss a pardon in brief remarks he made soon after the verdict.
Interior Minister Aryeh Deri, head of the ultra-Orthodox Shas party, also called for Azaria to be pardoned. “The court has done its job,” he tweeted. “I respect its verdict. But now the correct thing to do is pardon him. The process of the trial and the suffering of the soldier and his family justify a pardon.”
Transportation Minister Yisrael Katz (Likud) said that following the trial, “the government and army must now take responsibility and pardon the soldier, who we sent to the front line to protect Israelis from Palestinian terror.”
In a surprise development, coalition ministers were joined in their call for a pardon by Zionist Union’s Shelly Yachimovich, former head of the Labour Party.
Yachimovich praised the court for burnishing the ethical standard expected of IDF soldiers, but said the entire trial was a symptom of the deep division within Israeli society, “and Azaria’s shoulders are not broad enough to bear the weight of that rift. Therefore,” she tweeted, “at the conclusion of the trial and after the sentencing, we must carefully consider the possibility of pardoning him.”
Amir Peretz, another former Labor leader who has said he will again seek the party leadership, dismissed her stance as “populism.” Peretz, a former defense minister, also praised the verdict, and said: “Every soldier must know that the chain of command and rules of ethics apply also in the intricate reality of the West Bank, and ignore reckless politicians who… call for opening fire and shooting to kill without any actual authority.”
Opposition leader Isaac Herzog said in a statement that the verdict must be respected. He added, however, that “it cannot be ignored that Azaria was, to some degree, a victim of the situation, but the ruling strengthens the IDF, since you cannot ignore the circumstances of the incident, which reflect an impossible reality in a field that is complicated, which IDF soldiers deal with daily, hourly.”
A pardon can only be granted by the president in response to an official request for clemency.
The president’s office did not immediately respond to a request from The Times of Israel to comment on whether he would consider granting a pardon. It is expected that Reuven Rivlin will not make any decision until after sentencing in order to reserve the option to commute the sentence rather than overturn it entirely.
Regev, the culture minister, who previously served as the IDF spokesperson, claimed that as a result of interference by the media, politicians and the upper echelons of the military, Azaria had not received a fair hearing. She said that he had been tried in the public arena, likening the procedure to a field trial in the midst of battle and asserting that the judges has been influenced by the public nature of the trial.
Speaking on Army Radio, Regev also accused the army of abandoning the soldier and specifically attacked IDF Chief of Staff Gadi Eisenkot for not defending him. Eisenkot had alluded to Azaria on Tuesday, rejecting the campaign slogan of Azaria’s supporters that depicted him as “everyone’s child.” Regev insisted that Azaria “is everyone’s child” as well as “everyone’s soldier.”
Right-wing extremists, protesting and rioting outside the venue of the trial, chanted death threats against Eisenkot.
“Gadi, watch out,” they chanted, “Rabin is looking for a friend,” referring to the former prime minister who was assassinated for his policies.
The opposition Yesh Atid party’s chairman, Yair Lapid, said the conclusion of the court case was a time for unity and not further division.
“I call on everyone to end the violence and stop the irresponsible statements coming from within the political system,” he said in a statement. “It’s not the way of the Jewish people, of the State of Israel or of the IDF. The court has made its decision and now we also have a role: to prevent a rift in our society and to ensure no harm comes to the people’s army. The State of Israel is powerful because of our wonderful military, our officers and our soldiers and because we are a country of law and order.”
Responding to the verdict, Joint (Arab) List chair MK Ayman Odeh charged that the government was ultimately responsible for the killing, blaming Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for a decay in Israeli society.
“Netanyahu chose to stand together with the supporters of the soldier and their joyous calls of death to the Arabs, and so made it clear the he is responsible for the moral decline that these groups are leading in Israeli society,” he tweeted.
“Azaria is guilty,” he added, “but it is the government that is responsible, which for 50 years has been sending young men and women to become thugs whose task is to uphold military rule over a population deprived of rights.”
In a statement, Odeh implied that hundreds of extrajudicial killings were being carried out by the IDF in the West Bank.
“The difference between this incident and hundreds of others is the presence of the B’Tselem camera that recorded the cruel reality of the occupation and revealed the inflammatory pus that the occupation creates in the heart of Israeli society,” he said.
MK Zehava Gal-on, head of the dovish Meretz party, said in a statement on her Facebook page that right-wing politicians and activists, among them Bennett, the education minister, “did everything that they could to turn the trial into a circus, because a circus brings media and they live on media. They won and Azaria lost.”
The members of the cabinet are responsible for Azaria’s fate, she said, criticizing efforts made by politicians to explain away Azaria’s actions as the result of the circumstances he found himself in. “You can’t go to the media and explain the complicated reality that soldiers deal with when you are the ones who insist on sending them there. It is worth remembering that when the next Azaria comes. And he will come.”
Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.