Cabinet ministers expressed their delight Tuesday at the release from military prison of a former IDF soldier who was convicted of manslaughter for killing an incapacitated Palestinian attacker, with some saying his criminal record should be wiped clean.
Arab lawmakers denounced the open support expressed by cabinet members for Azaria, who walked free after completing nine months of his 14-month sentence for killing Abdel Fattah al-Sharif in the West Bank city of Hebron in 2016.
His early release was granted by an army prison parole board in March, when he had served half of his sentence and was qualified to request parole.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who initially denounced Azaria but later called for him to be pardoned, said he was “glad that this is over.”
Transportation and Intelligence Minister Israel Katz called for Azaria’s criminal record to be erased. “It was time for Elor to go home to his family and friends. I appeal to President Reuven Rivlin to act now to delete Elor’s criminal record so that he can integrate into civilian life and get on with his life,” he said.
Culture and Sports Minister Miri Regev said she had spoken by phone with Azaria’s father, Charlie, and congratulated the family on the release of their son.
“I was pleased this morning to congratulate Charlie Azaria and his family,” she tweeted. “I heard the sounds of joy coming from the home and I was excited for them.”
Like Katz, a fellow member of the ruling Likud party, Regev called for Azaria’s record to be deleted.
“I wish for Elor and his family to return to a normal way of life,” she said. “There remains just one more objective: to wipe Elor’s criminal record.”
Education Minister Naftali Bennett tweeted a picture of Azaria at home with his family, and wrote: “Elor, it’s so good to have you home.”
אלאור, כמה טוב שבאת הביתה! pic.twitter.com/SUN1bFcYn4
— Naftali Bennett בנט (@naftalibennett) May 8, 2018
Arab lawmakers criticized the joyful responses from cabinet members. Calling Azaria a “murderer,” Joint (Arab) List MK Aida Touma-Sliman said the support shown by senior government officials would encourage others to commit similar crimes.
“A government that embraces heinous murderers and praises their release is a government that is preparing the ground and giving a green light for the next murder,” she said in a statement. “The murder [Azaria] carried out with his own hands is in fact a murder that was done by all those who continue to incite, in every direction, against the Palestinian people and against the Arab public.
“It is galling to see Azaria free after only nine months in prison,” she continued. “His release today sends a tough message that Palestinian blood is cheap.”
MK Yousef Jabareen, also of the Joint List, said, “The forgiving and sympathetic attitude that we are witness to in the Azaria saga, which reached a climax today with his release, has transformed Azaria from a murderer into a hero, and in practice authorizes the next murder.”
Azaria was scheduled to be released on Thursday after serving two-thirds of his sentence, in accordance with a decision by the army’s prison parole board. But he asked to be released on Tuesday so that he could take part in his brother’s wedding on Wednesday, and military officials approved the request.
Azaria, the so-called “Hebron shooter,” was found guilty last year of killing Sharif, who several minutes earlier had attacked two IDF soldiers with a knife. In February 2017, Azaria was sentenced to an 18-month prison term, which IDF Chief of Staff Gadi Eisenkot later shortened by four months. Azaria began serving his term on August 9.
Azaria has never expressed remorse for his actions. He has maintained that he opened fire because he believed Sharif had a bomb hidden under his clothes. A military court, however, dismissed that claim, citing the soldier’s nonchalance in the moments before he killed Sharif, and his statements to fellow soldiers that the assailant deserved to die for attacking his comrades.
The Hebron shooter case revealed deep divisions in Israeli society over the army’s activities in the West Bank, with some — mostly on the right — arguing that he had behaved heroically in killing the Palestinian assailant, while others said he had broken the law and deserved a harsher sentence than he received.
Judah Ari Gross and Sue Surkes contributed to this report.