IDF chief shaves 4 months off Hebron shooter’s 1.5-year sentence

Elor Azaria, convicted of manslaughter for killing incapacitated assailant, to serve total of 14 months in prison

Judah Ari Gross is The Times of Israel's religions and Diaspora affairs correspondent.

Elor Azaria in the courtroom at the Kirya military base in Tel Aviv, August 8, 2017. (Roy Alima/Flash90)
Elor Azaria in the courtroom at the Kirya military base in Tel Aviv, August 8, 2017. (Roy Alima/Flash90)

IDF Chief of Staff Gadi Eisenkot on Wednesday reduced by four months the sentence of an IDF soldier convicted earlier this year of killing an incapacitated Palestinian assailant.

Elor Azaria, who was found guilty of manslaughter by a military court, filed a request for leniency with Eisenkot after he entered prison in August.

Eisenkot announced his decision to shorten Azaria’s sentence from 18 to 14 months in a letter to the former soldier that was later released by the military.

IDF Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Gadi Eisenkot speaks at the Herzliya Conference in the Israeli coastal city on June 20, 2017. (Hagai Fried/Herzliya Conference)

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 that 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 for it.

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.”

In response to Eisenkot’s letter, Azaria 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 decision to reduce Azaria’s sentence was sure to rile the military prosecutors, who fought for a longer sentence for the soldier in the original trial and, when that did not happen, appealed the sentencing to a higher court to get it increased.

Azaria said he was “sorry” that the prosecution opposed Eisenkot’s decision to grant clemency, “even by one day.”

He added, suggestively, that “among our enemies, we must remember, there is no charity or mercy. They are hungry for murder and full of hate.”

An IDF soldier loading his weapon before he appears to shoot a disarmed, prone Palestinian assailant in the head following a stabbing attack in Hebron on March 24, 2016. (Screen capture: B’Tselem)

Azaria was tried for shooting and killing Abdel Fattah al-Sharif approximately 11 minutes after the Palestinian stabber had been shot, injured and disarmed while attacking soldiers in the West Bank city of Hebron on March 2016.

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

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

The attempt failed. On July 30, Azaria’s conviction and sentence were upheld by a military court, which dismissed his testimony that he’d feared for his life, citing his nonchalance in the moments before he opened fire and killed al-Sharif.

In a letter requesting clemency, Azaria asked the army chief to commute his 18-month sentence to a punishment of community service. However, he did not express regret for his actions.

Such contrition was also absent from his first-ever public statement, which he posted as a video to Facebook in August. “I promise you that I acted out of a sense of immediate danger at the scene of the attack. But the court gave its ruling, and we live in a nation of laws. So I’m going to serve the prison sentence handed down, in the hope that it will be reduced,” he said.

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.”

Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.

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