Elor Azaria, the army medic convicted of manslaughter for shooting a Palestinian assailant who was already lying wounded on the ground, will serve 18 months in a military prison the minimum sentence, a military court ruled Tuesday.
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In Hebron last March, Azaria shot Abdel Fattah al-Sharif in the head after the Palestinian had stabbed an Israeli soldier. Last month, Azaria was convicted of manslaughter for “shooting and killing a wounded and supine Palestinian assailant,” and for behavior unbecoming of a soldier.
But in the Tel Aviv military court Tuesday, the judges opted for a lenient sentence despite their harsh words for Azaria at his conviction. They also gave the sergeant an 18-month suspended sentence and demoted him to private.
Azaria’s lawyer, Ilan Katz, agreed that the sentence was lenient. He said that anyone reading the conviction and the sentencing would think they were two different incidents. Still, the judges said Azaria acted with the intent to kill and not because he felt threatened, as army protocol demands.
The shooting was captured on video by a Palestinian human rights activist and widely distributed. At the time of the shooting, Sharif lay motionless after being shot.
According to two of the three judges on Tuesday's panel, an appropriate sentence ranged from 18 months to four years; they said the minimum sentence was particularly suitable. A minority opinion sought anywhere between 30 months and five years.
“The Israel Defense Forces should inscribe on its flag the need for strict protection of life's sacred value, which is higher than all other values," the judge in the minority said. "It should do so in light of the grave result in violating this value.”
The judges accepted the defense’s request to postpone the start of Azaria’s incarceration by two weeks so the defense could finish its appeal of the conviction. Thus Azaria is set to begin serving on March 5. The military prosecution noted that Azaria must show up at his military unit “in an organized way” probably an allusion to the possibility of a mass demonstration.
The judges noted that the clash in Hebron marked the first operational incident in which Azaria had taken part. Also, before Azaria shot Sharif, Azaria had treated his friend who had been stabbed.
“There is also no ignoring that during the shooting the scene was active, and the operational incident had not fully ended," the judges wrote. "There were also troops at the scene, as well as civilian rescue forces and civilians. There had been calls in the area about the danger the terrorist posed.”
The judges said they also took into account Azaria's young age, 20, while this was “his first encounter with the legal authorities, which contradicts his personality and outstanding military service before this regretful incident.”
The judges also took into account the threats that had been made to his family, the ramifications of having a criminal record, and the health of his relatives, they said.
The 18-month sentence is important also in terms of where Azaria will serve his sentence. Every military prisoner interned for a year or longer faces a committee that decides whether to transfer him to a civilian prison considered far harsher than a military prison, where most inmates are being punished for desertion or drug-related offenses. Also, Azaria’s term could be shortened by one-third for good behavior.
"We are finishing the trial with the feeling that the appropriate message has been sent,” said the military prosecutor, Lt. Col. Nadav Weisman.
Attorney Yoram Sheftel, who is expected to defend Azaria at the Military Court of Appeals, said after the sentencing that the military prosecution “is thirsty for Elor’s blood.” If Azaria’s lawyers appeal the conviction, as they have pledged to do, the prosecution might then appeal the light punishment.
The judges also commented on top defense officials during the affair then-Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon, Chief of Staff Gadi Eisenkot and IDF spokesman Moti Almoz, who now currently heads the Manpower Directorate.
"There can be no argument that the senior military leadership is allowed and even obligated to convey a clear and immediate stance on issues on the public agenda,” the judges wrote. "But when relating to events still under criminal investigation, one should wait until the picture arising from the investigation becomes clear."