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Israeli Soldier Convicted of Killing Palestinian Attacker Sentence to 18 Months

Some say sentence too harsh; others complain too lenient

The case of Elor Azaria, an Israeli soldier who shot dead a Palestinian attacker after he had been subdued and was lying on the ground, has riveted the Israeli public for the past year. To some, Azaria is a hero, who was trying to defend himself against a potential attacker; to others, he is a cold-blooded killer out to take revenge on Palestinians.

An Israeli military court today took a middle ground, sentencing Azaria to 18 months in jail, 12 months probation, and a demotion to private. The sentence was handed down after Azaria was convicted of manslaughter last month.

Azaria entered the courtroom smiling and held his mother, and then his father, for a long hug. He did not show any emotion when the sentence was announced, although the prosecution had asked for 3 – 5 years in jail. The maximum sentence for manslaughter in Israel is 20 years.

In reading out the sentence, the presiding judge, Col. Maya Heller, said, “The defendant shot a terrorist without any justification. The only value that was harmed by the defendant’s actions was the value of life. Azaria also defiled the purity of arms which is upheld by the IDF.”

She said, however, that there were also mitigating circumstances, including a “complicated area where terrorists attempted to kill soldiers and even managed to injure one.”

Azaria is to begin serving his sentence on March 5, although his lawyers have asked that the beginning of his sentence be postponed until his appeal is ruled on. The appeal must be filed within 15 days.

The prosecutor, Lt. Col. Nadav Weissman, is opposed to a delay. “The appeal could have already been written, as 45 days have passed since the verdict was given. The defendant no longer gets the benefit of the doubt. A manslaughter sentence should be immediately carried out.”

Some Israeli called for Azaria to be pardoned.

“Elor was sent to protect the citizens of Israel in the midst of a wave of murderous knifing attacks by Palestinians and the whole investigative procedure was tainted from its inception,” Israeli Education Minister Naftali Bennet said. “Even if he made a mistake, Azaria should not go to jail. We will all pay the price.”

Some Israeli analysts said the court imposed a relatively light sentence for the crime.

“The court found that Azaria did not really believe his life was in danger and was motivated by revenge,” Jonathan Livny, a Jerusalem lawyer who was a military court judge for 20 years told The Media Line. “He should have been charged with murder, and considering that it should have been on the higher end of punishment rather than lower.”

Israeli human rights groups welcomed the decision.

“Sending Elor Azaria to prison for his crime sends an important message about reigning in excessive use of force, Sari Bashi, Israel and Palestine Advocacy Director at Human Rights Watch told The Media Line. “But senior Israeli officials should also repudiate the shoot-to-kill rhetoric that too many of them have promoted, even when there is no imminent threat of death. Pardoning Azaria or reducing his punishment would only encourage impunity for unlawfully taking the life of another person.”

The judicial opinion said that one of the three judges wanted to impose a harsher sentence.

“Sentencing is often more complex than deciding if someone is guilty or not guilty,” Liron Libman, of the Israel Democracy Institute told The Media Line. “There are not many cases that are similar to this one. I guess one can say the judgement is relatively moderate.”

Libman said that senior military officials could decide to lessen or even commute the sentence to time already served. Israel’s President Reuven Rivlin can also issue a pardon.