Prosecution willing to let Hebron shooter go free in May

Elor Azaria appears before parole board after serving half his sentence; military says now too soon, but it won’t fight a request in 2 months

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

Former IDF soldier Elor Azaria, who was convicted of manslaughter for shooting dead an incapacitated Palestinian assailant in the West Bank city of Hebron, appears before a parole board in the army's Tel Aviv headquarters on March 14, 2018. (Flash90)
Former IDF soldier Elor Azaria, who was convicted of manslaughter for shooting dead an incapacitated Palestinian assailant in the West Bank city of Hebron, appears before a parole board in the army's Tel Aviv headquarters on March 14, 2018. (Flash90)

During a parole hearing, military prosecutors on Wednesday said they would allow Elor Azaria, a former IDF soldier convicted of manslaughter, to be released from prison in May, when he will have served 10 months of his 14-month sentence for killing an incapacitated Palestinian attacker in Hebron in 2016.

Azaria appeared before the military parole board to ask for early release from prison, having served half of his 14-month sentence — the minimum amount of time before such a request can be made in the army criminal system, unlike in civilian proceedings, where convicts have to serve two-thirds of their sentence before seeking parole.

Azaria, the so-called “Hebron shooter,” was found guilty last year of  killing Abdel Fattah al-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.

During Wednesday’s proceedings, which took place in the army’s Tel Aviv headquarters, Azaria’s attorney Yoram Sheftel argued that his client had behaved well in prison.

Military prosecutors, meanwhile, said the soldier’s punishment had already been limited by the judges in his initial sentence and then shortened by Eisenkot, so a further reduction was not warranted at this time. Still, they said they would not oppose a parole request in two months’ time, after Azaria had served two-thirds of his sentence.

If the parole board accepts such a request, the former soldier would be released around May 10.

Azaria has never expressed regret for his actions, something the military prosecutors also noted in their arguments. Then-Sgt. Azaria shot and killed Sharif on March, 24, 2016, some 11 minutes after Sharif had been shot and disarmed when he and another Palestinian man attacked two IDF soldiers in the West Bank city of Hebron.

Israeli soldiers cover the body of a Palestinian assailant who was shot in the head by an Israeli soldier as he lay wounded on the ground after injuring an Israeli soldier with a fellow Palestinian attacker in a stabbing assault in Hebron on March 24, 2016. (AFP / HAZEM BADER)

Azaria 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.

“I shot the murderous terrorist because at the time in the field, I was certain that he had an explosive and I felt an immediate threaten. Had I known otherwise at the time, I would have acted differently,” Azaria said during the proceedings.

Yoram Sheftel, attorney of Elor Azarial, arrives for a court hearing at the IDF’s Tel Aviv headquarters on July 17, 2017. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

In his arguments for early release, Sheftel also noted that the Passover holiday — also known as the Festival of Freedom — was approaching.

“We are two weeks away from the Festival of Freedom, and there is no more appropriate time to grant freedom to Elor Azaria,” he said.

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 broke the law and deserved a harsher sentence than he received.

The former soldier — he was released from the military part of the way through his trial — garnered support from leading politicians, who expressed hope that they could sway President Reuven Rivlin to grant Azaria clemency.

In November 2017, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman, Welfare Minister Haim Katz, Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked, Interior Minister Aryeh Deri and approximately 50 other lawmakers signed a petition saying that Azaria should be released.

“The Azaria affair is tearing Israeli society apart, creating polarization and division, and your decision can put an end to all this and calm the discourse,” the petition read. “It is impossible to ignore the feelings of the general public, that Elor Azaria is a scapegoat who has become a symbol and paid an especially high price.”

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