Hebron shooter Elor Azaria asks president for pardon

Ex-soldier claims he didn’t receive a fair trial, says ‘only in retrospect’ was shooting dead incapacitated Palestinian attacker an ‘operational mistake’

Ex-IDF soldier Elor Azaria is flanked by family and supporters as he arrives to begin his sentence at the military prison in Tzrifin, on August 9, 2017. (Flash90)
Ex-IDF soldier Elor Azaria is flanked by family and supporters as he arrives to begin his sentence at the military prison in Tzrifin, on August 9, 2017. (Flash90)

A former Israel Defense Forces soldier convicted of manslaughter for killing an incapacitated Palestinian assailant in the West Bank in 2016 submitted a pardon request on Thursday to President Reuven Rivlin.

In the letter, Elor Azaria requested clemency on the grounds he did not receive a fair trial.

“To my great sorrow, I did not receive a fair trial — this is my feeling and nothing can change it,” wrote Azaria.

He also addressed his continued refusal to express regret for shooting and killing Abdel Fattah al-Sharif approximately 11 minutes after the Palestinian stabber had been shot, injured, and disarmed after attacking soldiers in the West Bank city of Hebron in March 2016.

“If I had known for certain during those tense seconds at the scene that the terrorist was not booby-trapped, I would not have fired, plain and simple,” he wrote. “Therefore, and only in retrospect, the shooting of the terrorist was an operational mistake.”

Azaria maintained throughout his trial that he shot and killed al-Sharif because he feared the attacker was fitted with a bomb. A military court, however, dismissed the testimony that the soldier feared for his life, citing his nonchalance in the moments before he opened fire and killed al-Sharif, and his statements to fellow soldiers that the assailant deserved to die. He was ordered jailed for 18 months, which was later reduced to 14 months by the IDF chief of staff.

A spokesperson for Rivlin said the clemency request had been received and would be processed accordingly.

President Reuven Rivlin leads a prayer service at the President’s Residence in Jerusalem on September 27, 2017. (Mark Neyman/GPO)

Following the publication of Azaria’s letter, Education Minister Naftali Bennett (Jewish Home) called on Rivlin to pardon Azaria, saying it was “the moral and correct” step to take.

“Along with the important message of the ‘purity of arms,’ we now must send the no less important message of backing our fighters against terrorism,” tweeted Bennett.

Azaria’s pardon request to Rivlin followed a request for leniency he made to IDF Chief of Staff Gadi Eisenkot after entering prison in August.

Eisenkot decided last month to reduce Azaria’s sentence from 18 months to 14 months. In a letter to the former soldier that was later released by the military, the army chief wrote that he made his decision based on “considerations of charity and mercy.”

This means Azaria is scheduled for release in October 2018. However, he may get out of prison before then. Under military law, a prisoner is eligible for parole after half their sentence has been served. It was not immediately clear if Eisenkot’s reduction meant Azaria would still have to wait until May 2018 to apply for parole, as originally scheduled, or if he could submit a request in March of next year.

Eisenkot wrote that he decided to reduce Azaria’s sentence despite his displeasure with the fact that the soldier never took responsibility for his crime or showed remorse.

He also wrote to Azaria that in his view, “your behavior was out of bounds and deviated from army orders and the values of the IDF.”

IDF Chief of Staff Gadi Eisenkot speaks with new recruits to the army’s Golani Brigade at the Tel Hashomer base on July 23, 2017. (Flash90)

In response to Eisenkot’s letter, Azaria last month thanked the IDF chief of staff for the clemency, but reiterated he felt no regret for his crime and that he was justified in shooting dead the supine, disarmed Palestinian assailant.

“I will say again that I acted from a feeling of danger at the site of an attack, against a terrorist who had come to kill,” Azaria said.

He then quoted a Talmudic verse: “If someone comes to kill you, rise early to kill him first.

The divisive case has revealed deep rifts in Israeli society, with some seeing Azaria as a hero while others have condemned his actions.

Azaria was convicted by a district-level military court in January. Two months later, Azaria’s attorneys appealed the verdict, although the attempt failed.

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.”

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