Netanyahu Supports Pardon for Convicted Hebron Shooter Elor Azaria

'This is a difficult and painful day for all of us,' Netanyahu says after court convicts Elor Azaria for killing prone Palestinian assailant. Calls for pardon are 'ignorance and slogans,' Defense Minister Lieberman says.

Israeli soldier Elor Azaria, who is charged with manslaughter by the Israeli military, sits to hear his verdict in a military court in Tel Aviv, Israel, January 4, 2017.
Israeli soldier Elor Azaria, who is charged with manslaughter by the Israeli military, sits to hear his verdict in a military court in Tel Aviv, Israel, January 4, 2017. POOL/REUTERS

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Wednesday that he supports pardoning Elor Azaria, the soldier convicted earlier in the day of shooting dead a prone Palestinian assailant in Hebron last year.

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"I support a pardon for Elor Azaria," the prime minister said in a short statement. “This is a difficult and painful day for all of us - and first and foremost for Elor and his family, for IDF soldiers, for many soldiers and for the parents of our soldiers, and me among them."

Netanyahu called on the public to react with responsibility to the IDF, its officers and the chief of staff. "We have one army, which is the basis of our existence. The soldiers of the IDF are our sons and daughters, and they need to remain above dispute.”

In an interview with Channel 2 shortly after Netanyahu issued his statement, Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman termed calls for Azaria's pardoning "ignorance and slogans."

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Azaria, now 20, an Israeli Defense Forces medic, shot and killed Abd Fatah al-Sharif in Hebron in March last year. The shooting was captured on video by a Palestinian human rights activist and widely distributed. At the time of the shooting, Sharif was lying on the ground motionless after being shot while attempting to stab an Israeli soldier.

Azaria was found guilty of manslaughter by a three-judge panel in the Tel Aviv Military Court on Wednesday in one of the most polarizing trials in Israeli army history.

Israeli politicians, among them Education Minister Naftali Bennett and Culture Minister Miri Regev called for the soldier to be pardoned and Azaria's lawyer vowed to appeal the ruling. The months-long trial has highlighted deep rifts in Israeli society. Hundreds protested outside of the courtroom in Tel Aviv ahead of the verdict, clashing with police, counter-protesters and media.

President Reuven Rivlin may face a request to pardon him. Procedure stipulates that the defense minister and chief military prosecutor must both submit a pardon request to the president, who has the authority to pardon Azaria if such a request is submitted to him.

Education Minister Naftali Bennett has already stated that Azaria should be granted an immediate pardon. In private talks, Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman has not ruled out that possibility either.

Military law also allows for the sentence of someone convicted in military court to be reduced at the request of the IDF chief of staff or the officer commanding one of the general commands.

While the maximum sentence for manslaughter by law is 20 years, it is not expressly reasonable that the sentence will come even close to so long an imprisonment. The last soldier convicted of manslaughter was Taysir Heib, a member of the Bedouin reconnaissance battalion, who shot and killed British citizen Tom Hurndall. He was sentenced in 2004 to eight years, and he ended up serving six-and-a-half years.

Culture and Sports Minister Miri Regev (Likud) sent an official pardon request to the defense minister.

Education Minister Naftali Bennett called for Azaria to be pardoned "immediately." The entire proceeding, Bennett said, “was contaminated from the beginning,” with politicians making grave comments before the investigation of the case even began and “causing Elor irreversible harm.”

“Today a soldier who killed a terrorist who deserved to die, who tried to slaughter [another] soldier, was placed in shackles and convicted as a criminal,” said Bennett, who heads the right-wing Habayit Hayehudi party.