Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Wednesday evening said he backs calls to pardon an IDF soldier convicted of manslaughter for shooting dead an incapacitated Palestinian assailant, and described the conclusion of the months-long trial as “a hard and painful day.”
The Jaffa Military court earlier Wednesday convicted Sgt. Elor Azaria, 19, for shooting dead an incapacitated Palestinian who minutes before had stabbed two other soldiers.
The trial deeply divided the country, with politicians and current and former army generals alternately supporting or condemning Azaria’s actions.
Politicians from across the political spectrum responded to the verdict by calling for a presidential pardon to prevent Azaria serving jail time.
Writing on Facebook Wednesday night, Netanyahu gave his backing to the calls for clemency, saying that he supported granting Azaria a pardon.
“This is a hard and painful day for us all — first and foremost for Elor and his family, for IDF soldiers, for many citizens, and for the parents of our soldiers, myself included,” the prime minister wrote.
“I urge all citizens to act responsibly toward the IDF, the officers, and the IDF chief… IDF soldiers are our sons and daughters, and they must remain above all conflict. I support pardoning Elor Azaria,” he wrote.
Earlier, Culture Minister Miri Regev (Likud) called for a pardon for Azaria and Education Minister Naftali Bennett, head of the right-wing Jewish Home party, reiterated the call he had made the previous day, saying Azaria must be pardoned “immediately, right now.”
Interior Minister Aryeh Deri (Shas) and Transportation Minister Yisrael Katz (Likud) also publicly called for Azaria to be pardoned. In a surprise development, coalition ministers were joined in their call by Zionist Union’s Shelly Yachimovich, former head of the Labour Party.
Likud MK Yehudah Glick, meanwhile, called for clemency, but not a full pardon, for Azaria.
Responding to the calls, President Reuven Rivlin’s office said that defendants, rather than politicians, must apply for clemency and that requests will only be dealt with after all legal proceedings have ended.
“In accordance with standard practice regarding requests for pardons on this or any case, requests for pardons are dealt with when submitted by the applicant themselves, or by one with power of attorney, or an immediate relative, following a conclusive judicial ruling,” the statement read.
“In light of the foregoing, and in relation to the case of the soldier Elor Azaria, in the event that a pardon should be requested, it will be considered by the president in accordance with standard practices and after recommendations from the relevant authorities.”
The statement suggested Rivlin will not make any decision until after sentencing, giving him the option to commute the sentence rather than overturn it entirely.
Azaria’s sentencing will take place in just over a week, on January 15, according to the IDF. He faces a maximum sentence of 20 years, though analysts expect him to receive less than that.
His defense team said immediately after the verdict that it will appeal.
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.
Responding to the conviction, Ya’alon accused politicians of “cynically exploiting” the Azaria case to score political points, hurting the soldier and his family in the process.
“Today, with the conviction, we can say that the IDF and the Azaria family were seriously harmed by politicians who have betrayed their office,” the former defense minister said. “The criminal process that the soldier Elor and his family have experienced has been too difficult to bear and should have looked differently, should have been managed differently. The reason for its dragging out in a way that made it difficult for everyone involved is the cynical exploitation of the case by interested politicians for their own personal gain.”
“Rather than being leaders, they used Elor and his family as a political pawn for a few more seats. They lied to you. I am ashamed of those politicians,” Ya’alon added.