Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman on Sunday called on President Reuven Rivlin to pardon a former IDF soldier imprisoned for killing an incapacitated Palestinian assailant in the West Bank, saying freeing him would help “stitch together the rips” in Israeli society.
In a letter to Rivlin, Liberman said pardoning Elor Azaria would be in the “public interest” and would not undermine the values of the Israel Defense Forces.
“I believe that in this unique case there is a need to consider the public interest, the need to stitch together the rips in society and the influence the incident and the trial had on the citizens of the state and IDF soldiers facing the enemy,” he wrote.
“We send our daughters and sons as fighters to defend the security of the state and the public’s safety, we place them in complex situations that are unlike any other in the world, and demand from them — and will continue to demand — that they act with bravery, determination, professionalism and morality,” Liberman continued.
“I believe that pardoning Elor Azaria will not detract from these demands and will properly balance the importance of the rule of law with the personal and public interests relating to this issue,” he added.
He also cited the Israel’s upcoming 70th anniversary as a reason to pardon Azaria, as well as the “high personal and family price” Azaria and his family paid.
Rivlin’s office said it received Liberman’s letter and would weigh the request with professional legal sources.
Azaria was convicted of manslaughter for killing Palestinian stabber Abdel Fattah al-Sharif, who had been shot and disarmed some 11 minutes earlier after he attacked soldiers in the West Bank city of Hebron in March 2016.
Azaria’s months-long trial and conviction revealed deep rifts in Israeli society, with some hailing him as a hero and others deploring his actions.
Prior to becoming defense minister last June, Liberman was one of Azaria’s most vocal backers, a fact he acknowledged in his letter to Rivlin.
“I was one of the many who believed that in light of the circumstances there was no cause to try the soldier,” wrote Liberman. “However, as soon as he stood trial, and as soon as the court made its decision, I stood by the military justice system despite the harsh criticism flung at me.”
Liberman’s request for Azaria to be pardoned came after the former IDF soldier himself asked Rivlin for clemency last month on the grounds that 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 the shooting.
“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, citing the soldier’s nonchalance in the moments before he opened fire and killed al-Sharif, and his statements to fellow soldiers that the assailant deserved to die for attacking his comrades. He was sentenced to an 18-month prison term that was later commuted to 14 months by IDF Chief of Staff Gadi Eisenkot.
In a letter informing Azaria of the decision, the chief of staff wrote that it was prompted by “considerations of charity and mercy.”
Currently, Azaria is scheduled to be released in October 2018. However, he may get out of prison before then, as, 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.
Azaria was convicted by a district-level military court in January. Two months later, Azaria’s attorneys appealed the verdict, although the attempt failed.