Israel's Defense Minister Calls on President Rivlin to Pardon 'Hebron Shooter' Elor Azaria

Avigdor Lieberman said the Israeli soldier, who was convicted of manslaughter for killing an already subdued Palestinian assailant, has already paid a heavy price

Elor Azaria in court with his mother
Jim Hollander / Pool photo via AP

Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman called on President Reuven Rivlin on Sunday to pardon Elor Azaria, the soldier who is serving a 14-month prison sentence following a manslaughter conviction for killing a Palestinian terrorist, Abdel Fattah al-Sharif, in Hebron last year. Sharif had been subdued and was on the ground when Azaria shot and killed him.

In a letter to the president, Lieberman wrote: "Few are the cases, such as the one before us, in which the matter of a single individual becomes a mirror of Israeli society as a whole. Israeli society was tested in this case, which reflects, perhaps more than any event in recent years, the schisms and difference of opinion within it."

Lieberman, who was not defense minister at the time of the incident, came out publicly at the time as the leader of the Yisrael Beiteinu party in support of Azaria. In Sunday's letter to Rivlin, Lieberman wrote that he had not thought Azaria should have been tried because the case involved "an outstanding soldier and a terrorist who came to kill." Lieberman added, however, that once Azaria was tried and convicted, "I stood with the military justice system, and despite the strong criticism that I had expressed, I declared that we live in a country of laws and the rulings of the military court must be respected."

In his request to President Rivlin, Lieberman wrote that Arazia and his family had paid "a heavy price" in dealing with the trial and in the "unprecedented lengthy public exposure, which it seems also exacted a heavy price on their health."

Lieberman wrote that in the past pardons have been granted in more serious cases. "The history of pardons in the State of Israel reveals that it has been given to people in much more senior positions than Elor Azaria for acts of similar severity and also ones of greater seriousness than Elor's act, [and] which were committed under less pressured circumstances that allowed for room for greater exercise of judgment."

The public interest, the defense minister wrote, should also be taken into account in this "unique case," along with the need to heal the divisions in society and "the influence of the event and the trial on the citizens of the country and on Israel Defense Force soldiers facing the enemy."

"We send our daughters and sons as soldiers to defend the country's security and the public well-being, placing them in complex situations that have no parallel anywhere in the world, and we demand and will continue to demand that they act courageously, with determination, with professionalism and morally," Lieberman wrote. "I believe that pardoning Elor Azaria will not detract from these demands and will strike a proper balance between the major importance of the rule of law and the public and personal considerations pertaining to this matter."

In September, Israel Defense Force Chief of Staff Gadi Eisenkot reduced Azaria's original military court sentence of 18 months by four months. In his decision, Eisenkot wrote that he had also taken into consideration that Azaria had not expressed remorse for shooting Sharif.

On Sunday, President Rivlin's office issued a statement saying: "The president, who is currently on his way to a state visit in Spain, has received the relevant professional opinions for continued consideration of a request for a pardon of soldier Elor Azaria. He will consider the professional opinions that have been submitted to him, in addition to all of the material in the file, once he returns from abroad, at which time the matters will be discussed with professional staff, as is accepted procedure."

Lieberman's request for a pardon follows one filed last month by Azaria himself. In that request, Azaria said that justice was not served in his trial. He said he shot Abdel Fattah al-Sharif out of a feeling that he himself was in danger, a claim that two military courts rejected.

Azaria claimed that, if he had known with certainty that Sharif did not have explosives on his body, he would not have shot him. "Therefore, in retrospect only, the shooting of the terrorist was an operational mistake," Azaria wrote. The judges had also rejected the claim that Arazia's actions were an honest mistake.

In his request for a pardon, Azaria wrote that he was in prison as an Israeli soldier "who was deprived of his liberty because he acted against wrongdoers who had come to spill Jewish blood."