President Reuven Rivlin on Sunday rejected an appeal for pardon from a former IDF soldier who was jailed for manslaughter after he shot dead an injured and supine Palestinian attacker following a stabbing in the West Bank city of Hebron.
Rivlin’s decision came despite a request from Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman that the president pardon Elor Azaria, who is serving 14 months in prison for his crime.
“The President has given his opinion regarding the offenses committed by you and their circumstances, the content of your written application, and all the material and opinions brought before him, and has decided to reject the application,” the Legal Adviser to the President’s Office wrote to Azaria.
“As such, the President concluded that taking all considerations into account … an additional lightening of your sentence would harm the resilience of the Israel Defense Forces and the State of Israel,” the letter said, noting that “the values of the Israel Defense Forces, and among them the Purity of Arms, are the core foundation of the strength of the Israel Defense Forces, and have always stood strong for us in the just struggle for our right to a safe, national home, and in the building a robust society.”
The letter said that the military court had already taken Azaria’s extenuating circumstances into account in the sentencing and IDF chief of staff Gadi Eisenkot had already shortened his sentence..
“In his decision, the President took into account the fact that you are expected to face a committee in approximately three months, to consider your release,” the adviser informed Azaria.
Azaria, at the time of the shooting an enlisted serviceman in the IDF, 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.
Throughout his trial Azaria said that he shot and killed 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 Sharif, and his statements to fellow soldiers that the assailant deserved to die for attacking his comrades. He was sentenced in February 2017 to an 18-month prison term that was later commuted to 14 months by Eisenkot. Azaria had completed his army service by the time of his sentencing but is serving his time in a military prison.
Liberman responded to the decision by saying in a statement that while he “appreciates” the president, he wished to “express sorrow” over the rejection.
Rivlin, he continued, “had an opportunity to put an end to this episode, which roiled Israeli society.”
“Beyond the personal price the soldier and his family paid, I thought, and I still think, that in this special case it was appropriate to consider also public interest, the need to repair the splits in society, and the influence of the incident and the trial on IDF soldiers and the youth facing induction.”
He concluded by noting that Azaria was “an outstanding soldier” who killed “a terrorist.”
Culture and Sports Minister Miri Regev, who opposed Azaria’s imprisonment, criticized Rivlin for not taking the opportunity to set Azaria free.
“The president had an opportunity to realize the proper purpose of the pardoning institute. It is very regrettable that President Rivlin gave in to unacceptable pressures and chose also he to abandon Elor,” Regev said in a statement. “The institute of pardon is intended for exactly cases like this — to complete the gap between the official judgment and the sense of justice and feeling of the broader public. It is a great shame that the president didn’t end this saga today.”
In a letter to Rivlin earlier this month, Liberman said pardoning Azaria would be in the “public interest” and would not undermine the values of the Israel Defense Forces.
Azaria’s months-long trial and conviction revealed deep rifts in Israeli society, with some hailing him as a hero for killing an attacker and others deploring his actions.
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 the sentence has been served.