Israeli lawmakers have called for a pardon for Sgt. Elor Azaria, the soldier convicted Wednesday of manslaughter in the shooting death of an injured Palestinian assailant in Hebron in March.
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Opposition member Shelly Yacimovich (Zionist Union) also said " careful consideration should be given to the possibility of pardoning him."
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.
Regev said she would work to win a pardon. Taking issue with the military court, which announced its verdict on Wednesday, she said: “That’s not how you act toward a soldier [who belongs] to all of us.”
Following the conviction, Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman (Yisrael Beiteinu) said "this is a harsh verdict. I ask we all respect the court's ruling and show restraint. What is important – despite the harsh verdict – is that the defense establishment help the family and this soldier. I call on the public not to lambaste the IDF and the defense establishment. We must respect the ruling."
Bennett urged Lieberman to fulfill what Bennett said were “countless promises” to bring about an immediate pardon for Azaria so that he doesn’t spend a single day in jail."
Regev also said that the trial “should never have been initiated."
“A combat incident in which a terrorist is killed by an Israel Defense Forces soldier shouldn’t get to the criminal level," she said. "If Elor Azaria violated procedure, he should have faced disciplinary proceedings with his brigade commander. Unfortunately, the main court in this instance was a field court martial in which commentators and politicians judged Elor even before the military investigation of the incident had ended.”
Regev said the handling of the Azaria case sends a message to new IDF recruits that they are alone on the battlefield. “Soldiers face challenges that are not simple in [handling] operational incidents. This case involved abandoning a soldier.”
Transportation Minister Yisrael Katz (Likud), Interior Minister Arye Dery (Shas), Habayit Hayehudi lawmaker Bezalel Smotrich and the party's faction chairwoman Shuli Moalem-Refaeli all called for Azaria to be pardoned.
Opposition parties' response
Meanwhile opposition leader Isaac Herzog, head of the Zionist Union, called on the public to respect the legal process and verdict. "The assault on the judges, on the IDF chief of staff and IDF commanders harms the IDF and must stop.”
One should not ignore, he added, that “to some extent, Elor Azaria is the victim of a situation,” and “it is impossible to ignore the circumstances of the incident, reflecting an impossible situation in a complex setting that IDF soldiers deal with day in and day out.” The verdict, Herzog said, provides a roadmap for IDF conduct on the ground. “I want to strengthen the hand of [IDF] Chief of Staff Eisenkot, who has been steadfast to the IDF’s values, and I hope that the lessons of the judgment will be learned by both the defense minister and the IDF.”
The court conducted itself “professionally and courageously,” relying on the law and the evidence, said Zionist Union MK Yacimovich. She called attacks on the court “horrifying,” saying they challenge the rule of law.
Noting however that Israeli society is in an explosive state and that “Azaria’s shoulders are too narrow to bear the weight of the schism,” careful consideration should be given to the possibility of pardoning him,” she said.
Following a riots outside the courtroom by Azaria supporters, Yesh Atid party leader Yair Lapid called for a halt to the violence along with a stop to what he said were “irresponsible comments” by politicians. “That’s not the approach of the Jewish people, not of the State of Israel and not of the IDF. The court has spoken. Now we too have a job – preventing a schism within the people, preventing harm to the people’s army," adding that Israel is strong due to its army but also because it is a country of law and order.
“Courageous leadership needs to come out today on the side of the IDF and against the violence in the streets and say that the verdict must be accepted," said Tzipi Livni, co-leader of the Zionist Union. "That is the only way to stop the bleeding and polarization in Israeli society that have seen created [since the beginning of] the case.”
Former prime minister Ehud Barak warned that growing anger at the army and at Israel Defense Forces Chief of Staff Gadi Eisenkot could result in violence and urged Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to condemn those railing against the IDF and its chief.
Dery, who heads the ultra-Orthodox Shas party, said he respects the court's verdict, but added:"The conduct of the trial and the suffering that the soldier and his family have experienced justifies the granting of a pardon.”
Smotrich of Habayit Hayehudi, said a soldier who kills a terrorist who had sought to kill a Jew “should not be convicted of manslaughter. Period.” Smotrich added: “It’s important to make sure that the IDF is able to eliminate [the terrorist] from the first volley of fire and when this doesn’t happen, it’s a failure from the standpoint of values and operationally.”
In a reference to IDF Chief of Staff Gadi Eisenkot and Moshe Ya’alon, who was defense minister at the time of the shooting, Smotrich said when both of them “convict the soldier on the first day and enlist the entire system all the way through the trial to convict him, there’s no chance in the world that a court would rule otherwise.”
Citing the threat of terrorism directed against Israel and “blatant intervention in the trial,” Smotrich called on President Reuven Rivlin to quickly pardon Azaria.
"Indictment against Israeli society"
Following the verdict, Fathi al-Sharif, the uncle of Abdel Fattah al-Sharif, whom Azaria was convicted of killing, told Haaretz: “The fact that the soldier as convicted of manslaughter isn’t such an important development from our standpoint. From the beginning, we stated that he had committed murder and needed to be convicted of murder. The fact that they changed the count of the indictment to manslaughter is a perversion of justice and of the court.”
Sharif added: “The question that remains open is what sentence will be imposed on him, and we don’t have many expectations. It’s clear that he will receive a light sentence or be pardoned, because we understand and are following the pressures being brought to bear on the system and the sympathy that the soldier has been garnering in Israeli society.”
Knesset Member Ayman Odeh, head of the largely Arab Joint List Knesset faction, said that the case revealed the moral corruption of the occupation.
A key part of the evidence in the case was a video of the shooting incident, filmed by a member of the Israeli human rights organization B’Tselem. “The difference between this case and hundreds of others is the presence of a B’Tselem camera that documented the cruel reality of the occupation and revealed the infectious pus that the occupation is creating in the heart of Israeli society," said Odeh.
Reacting to the military court decision, Odeh’s Joint List colleague Ahmad Tibi said sarcastically that an “injustice” had been done to Azaria in that “dozens of other soldiers and commanders who have senselessly killed Palestinians should also have been convicted.”
“The Azaria trial was unnecessary because it was clear that the soldier shot in violation of the Israel Defense Forces' philosophy,” said Zionist Union Knesset member Yoel Hasson, adding that Azaria "should have been dishonorably discharged sparing Israeli society and the IDF the damage from the proceedings themselves.”
'Lieberman to blame'
Hasson also accused Defense Minister Lieberman of being “the first to contaminate the trial when he sat in on the proceedings as an elected official.” At the time of the shooting incident in March, Lieberman, who heads Yisrael Beiteinu, was still an opposition politician and came to Azaria’s defense.
Hasson lashed out at Lieberman, saying he had incited against the IDF, the court and the media and stood shoulder-to-shoulder with La Familia, a group of sometimes violent and racist extreme-right supporters of the Beitar Jerusalem soccer team, some of whom protested the verdict outside the military court at the Defense Ministry headquarters in Tel Aviv.
“It is highly ironic that today the La Familia gang is blocking the intersection below the office of [Defense] Minister Lieberman, who will have to deal with the consequences of his irresponsible actions,” said Hasson adding that Lieberman must now demonstrate that it is the IDF’s values that apply in the Azaria case and not those of La Familia.