Israeli Soldier Convicted of Killing Wounded Palestinian Attacker Appeals to President

Military chief already cut Elor Azaria's sentence for manslaughter from 18 to 14 months; now he hopes Rivlin will let him return to his family

Elor Azaria in court with his parents, July 30, 2017.
Elor Azaria in court with his parents, July 30, 2017. Tomer Appelbaum

Elor Azaria, the Israeli soldier convicted of killing a wounded Palestinian attacker, has petitioned the president to commute his sentence.

Azaria, who was convicted of manslaughter in the killing of Abdel Fattah al-Sharif and sentenced to 18 months in prison, made the request to President Reuven Rivlin on Thursday.

Chief of Staff Gadi Eisenkot shortened his sentence to 14 months. Based on his conduct since his arrest, Azaria is eligible to be released for good behavior after serving two-thirds of his sentence. He thus could be released as early as May 10. Otherwise, he will be released no later than next September 30.

The process for considering a commutation is considered relatively long. It includes receiving formal opinions from a number of sources. Azaria requires the opinion of the Military Advocate General, the head of the IDF Manpower Directorate and the army chief of staff.  Because the Military Advocate General, Sharon Afek, opposed shortening Azaria's sentence, he is likely to oppose as well Azaria's request. The chief of staff is also likely to oppose granting Azaria's request because he had shortened it by only four months when he could have commuted the sentence.

The chief of staff's recommendation is passed on to the president's office through the defense minister's office, and includes the opinion of Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman, whose position is particularly important. When the trial started, Lieberman, who was an opposition MK at the time, supported Azaria and even attended the trial. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has already called for Azaria's pardon, as have other senior government officials.

Education Minister Naftali Bennett appealed to Rivlin to immediately grant Azaria's request. "Elor was sent into dangerous territory in which there had been an attempt to murder Jews," he wrote. "Elor and his family have endured great suffering a long time. Besides the important message of purity of arms, we must now send a no-less important message of backing our fighters against terror. The right and moral act is to immediately pardon him."

A difference of opinion of top officials could raise tensions in the defense establishment, although the final decision to commute his sentence or not lies with Rivlin.

Azaria complained in his letter to Rivlin about not receiving a fair trial. "It's my feeling and nothing can change that," he wrote. He repeated his claims that he shot the terrorists out of a sense of danger, a claim that was rejected by two panels of military judges. He also wrote that had he known "for sure" that the terrorist did not have a bomb on him, he would not have shot. "Therefor, and after the fact, the shooting of the terrorist was an operational error," Azaria wrote. The judges also rejected this argument, that Azaria's actions were an honest mistake. He wrote in his appeal to Rivlin that the circumstances of his sitting in jail are those of an "Israeli soldier whose freedom of taken away from him because he acted against vile people who came to spill Jewish blood."

Azaria is not requesting a full pardon, which includes overturning the criminal conviction. Azaria may yet make this request of the president, the only one with authority to clear his record. "It is in your power, Honorable President, to pardon me, and I ask you to solemnly consider and take into account all the circumstances, and to end my time in jail so I may return to my family's embrace," Azaria wrote Rivlin.

President Rivlin commented: "The request will be processed by the relevant people and will be passed on, as is customary with pardon requests by soldiers, to the Defense Ministry and the IDF to receive opinions."