President Reuven Rivlin’s Office announced Sunday that he has declined to pardon Elor Azaria, the Israeli soldier who is serving a 14-month sentence for killing a subdued Palestinian terrorist last year.
The terrorist, Abdel Fattah al-Sharif, was lying on the ground when Azaria, who was convicted of manslaughter, shot and killed him in the West Bank town of Hebron.
The statement from the President’s Office said that in making his decision, Rivlin had taken the entire contents of the request into consideration in addition to “all of the material and professional opinions that had been presented to him.” It also noted that in sentencing Azaria, the military court stated that it had taken arguments supporting leniency into account in arriving at a sentence of 18 months in prison.
The president’s statement also noted that in September, Israeli army chief Gadi Eisenkot reduced Azaria’s original sentence by four months. Rivlin’s office said that the president believes that any further reduction of the sentence would “harm the strength of the Israel Defense Forces and of the State of Israel,” adding that “the IDF’s values, including purity of arms,” are fundamental to the Israeli army’s strength.
The statement also noted that Azaria is due to appear before a committee that would consider his possible release in another three months. Azaria began serving his prison term on August 9.
Earlier this month, Defense Minister Avidgor Lieberman requested that Rivlin issue a full pardon to Azaria, whose high-profile trial and conviction polarized the country and became a major political issue. Lieberman’s pardon request followed a request filed by Azaria himself in October. In seeking a pardon, Azaria claimed that justice had not been served at his trial. He said that he shot Sharif out of a feeling that he himself was in danger, a claim that two military courts had rejected.
Reacting to the president's decision on Sunday, Lieberman said he admires and respects Rivlin, but regrets his decision to deny the pardon request. "Under these unique circumstances, there was a basis for also considering the public interest, the need to heal divisions in society and the impact of the event and the trial on soldiers and young people about to be drafted," Lieberman said, adding that "we must not forget that this [case] involves an outstanding soldier and a terrorist who came to kill."
Knesset coalition chairman David Bitan (Likud) said Rivlin's decision was expected, but called it a missed opportunity "to connect with the people's desire to raise the morale of soldiers and young people who will be drafted in the future."
MK Yousef Jabareen (Joint List) welcomed Rivlin's decision, but said that even Azaria's original 18-month sentence didn't reflect the severity of his act. "I am pleased that the president didn't surrender to political pressures from the prime minister and his ministers, who called for Azaria to be pardoned even before he was sentenced," he said. Jabareen added that Eisenkot's decision to reduce the sentence is a message that Palestinian blood is expendable.
Jabareen's party colleague Dov Khenin said a "right-wing fringe" had lent its support to Azaria and had "shamefully also dragged most of the ministers in the cabinet along with them." Referring to the fact that the killing of Sharif was caught on video, Khenin added: "They had wanted to set a precedent -- that every soldier was allowed to become an executioner in front of the camera and to go home without punishment. These people are disappointed now, and that's good. A large part of the Israeli public is not interested in having this people turned into a people of hangmen."
MK Eyal Ben-Reuven (Zionist Union), a former Israeli army general, also welcomed Rivlin's decision, calling it important in upholding the values of the IDF and of Israeli society as a whole. In his stateement of support for the president, MK Ofer Shelah (Yesh Atid) said Rivlin had opted against a pardon despite the popularity that it would have earned him. Shelah warned, however, of "the flood of poison" that he said could be expected in the wake of Rivlin's decision.
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