Israeli Army Chief Might Reduce Sentence for 'Hebron Shooter' if He Voices Regret

Meanwhile, defendant's histrionic defense lawyer calls chief of staff 'fat'; sources stress that deal will only be on table after Azaria starts serving sentence

Elor Azaria waits to hear the ruling at an Israeli military appeals court in Tel Aviv, Israel July 30, 2017.
POOL/REUTERS

If Sgt. Elor Azaria expresses regret for the shooting that led to his manslaughter conviction, Israel Defense Forces Chief of Staff Gadi Eisenkot will seriously consider reducing his 18-month sentence, army sources said on Monday.

On Sunday, the Military Court of Appeals rejected Azaria’s appeal of his conviction and sentence for killing a Palestinian assailant, Abdel Fattah al-Sharif, while the latter was already lying on the ground gravely wounded in Hebron last year. Azaria’s attorney, Yoram Sheftel, is expected to announce within the coming week whether or not his client will seek to appeal this decision to the Supreme Court. If Azaria decides against appealing, his next move would presumably be to ask Eisenkot for clemency.

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Monday morning, however, Sheftel launched an ad hominem attack on Eisenkot in an interview with Channel 10 television. “The chief of staff is fat and doesn’t project a soldierly image in his appearances,” the attorney said.

Elor Azaria's defense attorney Yoram Sheftel outside the military court in Tel Aviv, July 30, 2017.
Tomer Appelbaum

An army source said afterward, “The IDF won’t hold any negotiations with Sheftel. The Azaria family has to decide: Either it files a request for permission to appeal, or Elor enters jail. After Elor starts serving his sentence in a military prison, he’s entitled to send a request for clemency to the chief of staff, and the chief of staff will be the one to decide. All the political pressure they’re trying to apply now is superfluous. There will be no deal in advance.”

The source appeared to be responding to an interview by Azaria’s father, Charlie, with Army Radio on Monday morning, in which he said the family hasn’t ruled out trying to appeal to the Supreme Court, but would also be interested in making a deal with the army.

“We aren’t ruling anything out,” Charlie Azaria said. “If we get a concrete offer for a significant reduction in the sentence, I believe that, together with the defense team, we’ll reach the right decision.”

Father: 'Elor doesn't need to apologize'

Regarding the possibility of his son apologizing as part of a deal, Charlie Azaria responded, “Elor doesn’t need to apologize. Nobody can judge him, can get inside his head and decide whether what he did was right or not.”

If Azaria decides to ask Eisenkot for clemency, he will spend at least a month in jail before a decision is made. The Military Court of Appeals ruled that he will start serving his sentence on August 9, unless he seeks to appeal to the Supreme Court and the latter delays the start of his sentence. If he does enter jail on August 9, he will be able to ask Eisenkot for clemency only on September 7, the date after which the appellate court’s verdict can no longer be appealed.

Israel Defense Forces Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Gadi Eisenkot.
Olivier Fitoussi

Under military law, the chief of staff must respond to a clemency request within 30 days, after discussing the request with the military prosecution.

The prosecution, however, already thinks Azaria’s sentence is too lenient. And while the Military Court of Appeals rejected Azaria’s appeal unanimously, it rejected the prosecution’s appeal of the leniency of the sentence only by the narrowest, 3-2 margin.

Eisenkot said in a statement on Sunday that Azaria “is an IDF combat soldier who, like many of our soldiers, served at the sharp edge and took part in a common challenge whose purpose is to provide security for Israeli citizens. If Azaria chooses to submit a request for clemency, it will be seriously considered, including an examination of all the relevant considerations, out of a commitment solely to the IDF’s values, its combatants and those who serve in it.”

That last sentence appears to indicate that Eisenkot doesn’t plan to pay attention to either the politicians who are urging that Azaria be pardoned, or to public opinion, which points the same way.

Nevertheless, his statement also implicitly acknowledged that the IDF had made mistakes in handling the case. The army, Eisenkot said, “has learned lessons and will continue to do so.”