A military court on Sunday denied the appeal of Sgt. Elor Azaria, who killed an incapacitated Palestinian assailant last year in Hebron. The court also rejected the prosecution's appeal seeking a harsher sentence, leaving the original sentence of 18 months in prison in place.
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Azaria was convicted of manslaughter for killing the assailant, Abdel Fattah al-Sharif.
Following the ruling, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman and Education Minister Naftali Bennett called for a pardon of Azaria. "My opinion hasn't changed about pardoning Elor Azaria," the prime minister said.
The court president, Maj. Gen. Doron Piles, said the judges rejected the defense's request to allow new evidence of other cases in which Israel Defense Forces soldiers shot Palestinians, except that of the Binyamin Brigade commander Col. Yisrael Shomer.
Last July, Shomer shot and killed 17-year-old Palestinian Mohammad Kosba during a chase after the teenager threw a rock at Shomer's vehicle near the West Bank village of A-Ram. Piles said the two cases were different, adding that Hebron case was not an instance of selective enforcement and there was no dispute that Azaria's shots caused Sharif's death.
“The unnecessary or disproportional use of a weapon is forbidden and immoral, is ineffective and even harmful. The IDF is the organized military of a country that operates according to law. Soldiers must not settle accounts with terrorists after the danger from them has passed. That is the role of the law enforcement system,” Piles said.
'No responsibility, no doubt'
“The appellant [Azaria] did not accept responsibility for his actions and did not express a trace of reflection or doubt," the judges wrote. "The defense’s appeal of the sentence was therefore denied by all the judges. The extent of harm to [Israeli army] values because of the acts of the defendant is very large. This is not the way of the State of Israel; it is not the way of the IDF. This is a forbidden and immoral act."
In their ruling, the judges criticized public figures who spoke out publicly about the affair during the investigation and trial. “Exploiting their public position to influence the ongoing legal proceedings undermines the foundations of justice. In this affair, lines were crossed,” wrote the judges. They added, however, that that such expressions by public figures did not harm Azaria.
After the court's ruling, Bennett wrote in a statement that "the decision is harsh, but we must respect the court. Now, after a year and a half of suffering, the time has come to pardon Elor Azaria. On behalf of our soldiers who are on the front line, and in order to prevent the loss of our power of deterrence, Elor Azaria must return home."
Bennett added that despite the difficult ruling, citizens should refrain from harsh criticism of the Israeli army and its commanders. "I have full faith in Chief of Staff Eisenkot and IDF commanders. In no scenario are there grounds for calls [to attack the IDF] as there were in the past," he said.
Azaria came to court Sunday from his home in Ramle, where he has been under house arrest since his release from the army two weeks ago. He has been allowed out of the house only to go to services on Friday and Saturday at a synagogue near his home, accompanied by one of his parents.
Likud lawmakers Nava Boker and Oren Hazan were in the courtroom.
Eisenkot stated that the judges delivered a clear decision following legal proceedings that were "principled, professional, impartial, independent and without internal or external interference." The army, he said, has learned lessons from the case "and will also continue to do so following the judgment handed down today."
The army chief noted that Azaria "had taken part in the joint challenge whose purpose is to provide security to the citizens of the State of Israel."
Another appeal, or a pardon
The verdict on the appeal came after Azaria’s attorneys and the military prosecution failed to reach a compromise as recommended by the court.
Azaria's lawyer, Yoram Sheftel, may take the case to the Supreme Court. If he does so, he can ask the court for the imposition of Azaria’s sentence to be stayed for a second time. The prosecution is expected to object to this request, as it did when the appeal was first filed.
Lieberman called on Azaria's family to refrain from filing another appeal, saying they should request a pardon from Eisenkot instead. "I have no doubt the chief of staff will take into consideration all the difficult circumstances and his being an outstanding soldier," Lieberman tweeted.
Azaria can also ask that the 18-month sentence be reduced. If he does so, Eisenkot will make a decision based on the opinion of the military prosecution. However, in order for that to happen, Azaria would have to declare that he takes responsibility for his actions.
Eisenkot said after the verdict that if Azaria requests a reduction of sentence, "it will be given serious consideration involving an examination of the totality of the factors relating to the matter, and out of my sole commitment to the values of the IDF, its combat soldiers and those serving it."
Another option is for Azaria to seek a presidential pardon, in which case President Reuven Rivlin would ask for the opinion of the military advocate general, the head the IDF Manpower Directorate, Eisenkot and Lieberman.
Zionist Union head Avi Gabbay said there were many justifications for denying Azaria’s appeal, but also called for "removing petty politics from the military and its judicial proceedings.” Gabbay noted Lieberman's support for Azaria before the Yisrael Beiteinu leader was appointed defense minister and alleged that the case revealed Netanyahu's "clearly out-of-control leadership." He said it was part of the prime minister's political battle with Habayit Hayehudi leader Bennett "over three and a half Knesset seats on the margins of the right wing.”
Zehava Galon, the leader of the Meretz party, said that the message sent by the military appeals court's ruling was more important than its decision to confirm Azaria's conviction. “The IDF will not be a militia and will not give legitimacy to soldiers who act out of revenge with the morals of gangs,” she said.
The court did not give into pressure from members of the public and from politicians, said Galon. She added that she expectated Eisenkot not to give into pressure to commute Azaria's sentence and hoped Rivlin would not accede to any request to pardon the soldier.