The end is almost in sight for the controversial and ongoing saga of the soldier who was convicted of manslaughter for shooting and killing an already neutralized terrorist in March 2016.
In a case that has produced strong feelings across the Israeli divide, Elor Azaria was handed an 18-month prison term on Feb. 21. He is scheduled to enter jail on Wednesday.
Last week, Azaria and his team lost their appeal to the conviction and sentence. In an hours-long deliberation, the court upheld the sentence, even though they deemed it a lenient punishment for the crime. Today, military prosecutors refused to defer his entry into prison while Azaria awaits a decision by IDF Chief of General Staff, Gadi Eisenkot, whether or not to commute his sentence.
During the appeal proceedings, Azaria’s defense team attempted to reduce the already moderate sentence by presenting new evidence and arguments, all of which were rejected by the judicial team. Whereas Azaria tried to paint his fellow soldiers in a bad light to discount their testimonies, the judges said they were credible compared with Azaria’s testimony which was inconsistent, unreliable and unbelievable.
In a case that some have dubbed the OJ Simpson trial of Israel for its notoriety, Azaria and his actions have received both adulations on one extreme and damnation on the other. From the time he killed the neutralized terrorist in what looked like an execution-style shooting, and the footage of his action was aired, to the time various Knesset members and IDF staff publicly made conflicting statements, until Azaria was taken into custody through to the trial, conviction, and sentencing, it has caused much contention and division across the country.
Outside of court, this case has been in the limelight, pitting politicians against each other and driving wedges in relationships in the various echelons of society — both the political left and right, as well as religious and secular. Azaria’s attorney, Yoram Sheftel, on the 103FM Radio, made derogatory personal comments about the IDF Chief of General Staff, Gadi Eisenkot, unrelated to the Azaria case. This caused an outcry from the public as well as other radio hosts and the station chief. The attorney apologized, but reportedly with reluctance.
Sheftel was not Azaria’s initial attorney. His original defense team, Ilan Katz and Eyal Besserglick, took the stance of cutting a deal with the prosecution or accepting the 18-month sentence. At this point, Azaria took on Sheftel to defend him instead. The Azaria family and Sheftel flat out rejected any deal that included jail time. Sheftel’s approach has been aggressive and accusatory towards the Military Police, the IDF and the witnesses for the prosecution, sticking to the claim that Azaria’s only crime was to kill the terrorist in self defense.
The judges outlined the IDF military code of conduct, which makes it clear that incapacitated assailants are neither a threat nor to be attacked. The damning video evidence corroborated witness testimony. They heard Azaria say the terrorist deserved to die and had to be killed in revenge. The footage was analyzed thoroughly and showed that Azaria’s body language showed no evidence of fear and he was not under any threat.
In upholding the sentence, the IDF Court President, Major General Doron Filis who is the head of the military appeals court said that the moral values and ethos of the IDF are what sets it apart from Israel’s enemies. The IDF is not a place for vigilantes and what Azaria did, even though his anger was understandable, he acted inappropriately, alone and against the IDF.
Azaria was not the only one to receive the proverbial rap on the knuckles. The politicians who had been vocal about the case were criticized for their improper responses to the initial incident.
“It is no secret that this trial caused a lot controversy in Israeli society,” Filis said. “Those serving in combat roles expected tough and demanding service. IDF combat soldiers put their lives at risk with integrity. All of Israel’s heart goes out to them. When we consider the punishment of a soldier, we examine the moral ethos of the soldiers.”
In the Military Advocate General office, the general opinion is that the soldier, who has since been released from the army and appeared in civilian clothing at his appeal, was given poor advice by his legal team. A MAG staff member spoke to KNI on condition of anonymity and said that if Azaria, at the outset, had shown any remorse of his own free will and if he had not criticized and blamed the IDF, the case could have had a different outcome.
Since the rejection of the appeal, Azaria’s father said that the defendant might look at apologizing if this would lead to a reduced prison sentence. At the same time, the Azaria team is considering appealing to the Supreme Court even though before this week’s appeal, Azaria’s father said that they would accept the court’s decision.
The prisoner will be able to appeal on Sept. 7, but only after acknowledging that what he did was wrong and expressing remorse. It is likely that the Supreme Court will not even accept an appeal request.
Azaria will enter prison on Aug. 9.