Military judges Tuesday sentenced an Israeli soldier convicted of manslaughter to 18 months in prison for the killing of a disarmed, incapacitated Palestinian assailant last year, in a case that has revealed deep divisions in Israeli society.
Elor Azaria, 21, was also given two suspended sentences, one for 12 months and the other for six, by the military court at the IDF headquarters in the Kirya base, Tel Aviv, as well as a demotion in rank to private.
Judges ruled that Azaria would begin his 18-month sentence on March 5 after defense attorneys asked for a delay while they file an appeal. For the past 10 months, the soldier has been confined to base after being released from military house-arrest shortly after the March 24, 2016 incident. He remained confined to base after Tuesday’s sentencing.
Those 10 months will not count toward his sentence, but nine days he spent in jail immediately after the killing will be deducted from his term, the judges ruled.
Azaria was convicted in January in the shooting death of Abdel Fattah al-Sharif, who was lying on the ground wounded and disarmed after stabbing a soldier in the West Bank city of Hebron. Azaria, a combat medic, was filmed shooting Sharif in the head.
Another stabber, Ramzi Aziz al-Qasrawi, was killed in the course of the attack, which left one soldier lightly wounded.
As he entered the courtroom, a smiling Azaria was met by applause and received hugs from his family and well-wishers. After the sentencing, his family and supporters sang Israel’s national anthem and his father, hugging him, said to Azaria “You’re a hero.”
Following sentencing, friends and family sing the national anthem, call Azaria a "hero". He hugs his mother and father, then leaves. pic.twitter.com/9iIGiqp5pd
— Judah Ari Gross (@JudahAriGross) February 21, 2017
Azaria’s father and mother, who sat on either side of him, listened intently as the chief judge, Maya Heller, read the sentencing decision. They kept their arms around Azaria and occasionally rested their heads on his shoulders.
Chief prosecutor Lt. Col. Nadav Weisman said in a statement after the sentencing that the jail term would send a message to commanders about upholding the army’s values.
“We know this was not an easy day for the accused and his family, but justice needed to be done and justice was done,” he said.
‘They sentenced [Azaria] to just a year and a half in prison. Azaria needed to be punished, and seriously.’
Several politicians and officials repeated calls for Azaria to be pardoned immediately after the sentence was announced, while others praised the prison term. Some predominantly left-wing politicians also said the 18-month sentence was insufficient.
“The court said its piece, the legal process is done. Now is the time for clemency, to return Elor to his home,” Transportation Minister Yisrael Katz (Likud) wrote on Facebook, in a call echoed by Jewish Home leader Naftali Bennett.
Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman did not repeat his earlier calls for a pardon, writing on Facebook: “Now, after the sentencing, I hope that the two sides will do what is necessary to finish this issue for good… As I’ve said in the past, even those who don’t like the verdict or the sentence are bound to respect the court, and as I’ve also said, the military must stand at the side of the soldier and his family.”
Human Rights Watch said in a statement that “sending Elor Azaria to prison for his crime sends an important message about reining in excessive use of force.”
Left-leaning Meretz MK Tamar Zandberg wrote on Facebook: “They sentenced [Azaria] to just a year and a half in prison. Azaria needed to be punished, and seriously.”
A source close to President Reuven Rivlin, who could hand down a pardon, said no such request had been made as yet.
A spokesman for the Palestinian government told AFP the sentence was a “green light to the occupation army to continue its crimes.”
Outside the court, dozens of Azaria’s supporters gathered to protest against any jail time. One man was temporarily detained but the protest remained under control and there were no arrests, sharply contrasting with melees that broke out between police and protesters when Azaria was convicted in January.
In Hebron, Sharif’s family watched the sentence being read out on television.
“A year and a half is a farce,” Sharif’s father Yusri told journalists at the family home near Hebron in the southern West Bank.
“What does a year and a half mean? Was he an animal to be killed like this, in this barbaric way?”
The 18-month sentence was less than the 3 to 5 years the military prosecution had asked for.
Heller said that two of the judges on the tribunal wanted a sentence of 18 to 48 months, overruling one judge who offered a dissenting opinion, calling for a longer term of 30 to 60 months.
Heller was joined on the panel by judges Col. Carmel Wahabi and Lt. Col. Yaron Sitbon. She did not specify which judge was in the minority opinion.
Heller noted that it was difficult for them to reach a decision in the case, as they had little precedent on which to base their ruling. Soldiers accused of manslaughter generally reach a plea deal, and the cases where they have gone to trial and been convicted were under notably different circumstances.
Reading out the sentence, Heller noted that Azaria violated the army’s value of “purity of the weapon,” and its rules of engagement. In their verdict last month, the judges found that Azaria, who shot dead Sharif after the Palestinian assailant had been lying on the ground for several minutes, was motivated by a desire for revenge.
Heller said the judges had taken into account mitigating factors including the “harm suffered by his family” and the fact Azaria was in “hostile territory” when the shooting occurred. She added, however, that he did not open fire out of danger — but rather to harm the assailant — and that he had not expressed remorse for his actions.
But the judges centered much of their criticism on the army for not taking better care of Azaria’s family, and the defense minister and army spokesperson for interfering in the legal proceedings by making statements to the press soon after the incident, before the court reached its decision.
Nearly three-quarters of Israelis — 73 percent — feel the army’s top brass convicted Azaria in the press before the trial began, according to survey statistics released by the Institute for National Security Studies last month.
Heller also referenced a meeting organized by the IDF in the weeks after the sentencing in which Col. Guy Hazut, the commander of the Kfir Brigade in which the soldier served, attempted to convince Azaria’s father not to pursue an appeal.
Last month, Azaria pleaded for the court’s mercy in its sentencing, saying his family had suffered long months of “torture” and had been crushed by the drawn-out trial.
Also last month, Azaria’s father, Charlie, beseeched the judges to spare his son any additional prison time, citing his and his wife’s recent health problems.
Heller said both of these were taken into consideration.
Politicians across the board, including Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and the center-left former Labor party leader MK Shelly Yachimovich, have come out in favor of a pardon for the Kfir Brigade soldier.
By law, there are three ways Azaria may obtain a pardon. All convicts, including soldiers, can appeal to the president, Reuven Rivlin. Soldiers can also turn to the head of their command, in this case the Central Commnad, or to the IDF chief of staff, Lt. Gen. Gadi Eisenkot, who also has the legal power to commute sentences for active-duty personnel.
Rivlin has said he would only consider a pardon after Azaria’s legal appeals are exhausted.
Times of Israel staff and Agencies contributed to this report.