Human rights groups and Palestinian leaders have condemned what they called the “extremely lenient” punishment of Elor Azaria, the Israeli army medic who was filmed executing a severely wounded Palestinian in Hebron last year.
On Tuesday, a military tribunal sentenced the soldier to 18 months in jail and a demotion, nearly a year after he shot a bullet from close range into the head of 21-year-old Abdel al-Fattah al-Sharif.
There has rarely been a trial in Israel where the judges have been under such relentless – and mostly hostile – scrutiny. That appeared to be reflected in their sentencing, more than a month after they found Azaria guilty of manslaughter.
The sentence was much lower than the three to five years demanded by the prosecution, and far below the maximum tariff of 20 years. One of the three judges dissented, recommending two and a half to five years.
“Azaria should have received a life sentence. This will not act as a deterrence to other trigger-happy soldiers,” Jamal Zahalka, a Palestinian member of the Israeli parliament, told Al Jazeera. “There are thousands of other soldiers who have killed Palestinians, but are not on trial. Israeli pilots dropped bombs on schools and hospitals in Gaza [in the 2014 war]. Why are they not on trial, too?”
He called Israel a “democracy of guns”, adding: “The real author of the crimes against Palestinians is the Israeli state. By putting one individual on trial, Israel hopes to confer legitimacy on the whole apparatus of state-sanctioned killing.”
Even before the sentencing, Azaria’s lawyers had said they would appeal the verdict. If that fails, they have vowed to seek a pardon. Education Minister Naftali Bennett immediately backed a pardon for Azaria.
For Palestinians, the trial was viewed as little more than a farce. The family of Sharif said that Azaria had carried out a “cold-blooded execution”, not manslaughter. They added: “The sentence he received is less than a Palestinian child gets for throwing stones.”
Azaria shot Sharif more than 10 minutes after the Palestinian had been severely wounded by other soldiers at a checkpoint and was lying helpless on the ground.
Samir Zaqout, a spokesman for the al-Mezan Centre for Human Rights, based in Gaza, said the lenient sentence came as “no surprise”.
“Palestinians don’t expect any kind of justice from the Israeli legal system,” he told Al Jazeera. “The lives of Palestinians are judged as worthless.”
Addameer, a group defending Palestinian prisoners’ rights, also condemned the sentence, noting that it was less than many Palestinians received for belonging to an organisation proscribed by Israel.
“The message this sends to other soldiers and police officers who extrajudicially execute Palestinians is that their actions will not be seriously accounted for and that impunity will persist,” it said in a statement sent to Al Jazeera.
Extreme anti-Arab views
Despite the clear-cut evidence, military prosecutors last year rejected a murder charge and settled on the lesser manslaughter indictment, amid a wave of support for Azaria from Israeli politicians and the public alike.
Polls showed most Israeli Jews agreed with Azaria’s refusal to show remorse: they believed he acted appropriately and had been unfairly singled out for prosecution.
During the trial, it emerged that Azaria, 20, held extreme anti-Arab views, which he expressed regularly on social media. In one Facebook post during the 2014 war on Gaza, he called for the massacre of every Palestinian in the small coastal enclave.
He also admitted to spending a great deal of time in Hebron with the followers of the late Meir Kahane, a rabbi whose virulently anti-Arab Kach party was outlawed in 1994 after a supporter, Baruch Goldstein, shot 29 Palestinians in Hebron’s Ibrahimi mosque.
None of that damaged Azaria’s popularity with a large swath of the Israeli Jewish public. The Israeli media designated him as “everyone’s son”.
Worries about morale
Despite prosecuting Azaria, the army was reported to be worried about the damage the case was doing to morale.
Local media revealed that, after Azaria’s conviction last month, a senior commander approached his father to persuade the family not to appeal, reportedly offering them an 18-month jail term in return. In the end, that was what the judges imposed, even without a deal.
The army is reportedly concerned about research showing a recent sharp drop in the proportion of combat soldiers who believe their service is more important than non-combat roles. There is a similar fall among those who believe their commander will back them if they get into trouble.
Riots erupted outside the courtroom early last month when Azaria was found guilty. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was among the senior politicians who called for a pardon for Azaria even before the conviction, implying that the trial itself was a miscarriage of justice.
Sari Bashi, the Israel-Palestine director of Human Rights Watch, said that her organisation’s research showed that too often, soldiers adopted a shoot-to-kill policy towards Palestinians, including when their lives were not in danger or when less force could be used.
“It is important that Israel’s political and security leaders repudiate the shoot-to-kill rhetoric,” she told Al Jazeera.
Secret offer to family
Delivering the verdict last month, the court dismissed Azaria’s claim that he acted in self-defence. They concluded that he sought revenge on Sharif for a knife attack on a checkpoint in the occupied Palestinian city a short time before.
The three judges, who received a flood of death threats afterwards, had to be issued with bodyguards. But while sentencing was expected a few days later, the panel seemed in no hurry to conclude the case.
It emerged that the extra time had been exploited by the army to try to reach a settlement with Azaria behind the scenes.
Azaria’s battalion commander, Guy Hazot, secretly approached his father, Charlie Azaria, to offer lenient treatment if his son expressed regret for his actions and promised not to appeal the conviction. Charlie Azaria recorded the conversation.
According to the Jerusalem Post newspaper, the move by Hazot was designed “to end the public relations headaches and social divisions the case has created in the army and throughout the country”.
Hazot’s actions raised serious questions about the military courts’ independence, said Nadeem Shehadeh, a lawyer with Adalah, a legal rights group in Israel. “I have never heard of a case where army commanders went over the court’s head to offer a sentencing deal,” he told Al Jazeera. “It is highly irregular.”
Appeal or pardon?
Azaria now has various options to avert or minimise prison time. He could request the head of the army’s central command reduce his sentence. But more likely, he will launch an appeal. His lawyers have said they will argue that the guilty verdict was influenced by statements last year from former Defence Minister Moshe Yaalon and army commanders that there was clear evidence Azaria shot Sharif.
If that fails, Azaria can ask for a pardon from the army chief of staff, Gadi Eisenkot. And if he refuses, Azaria’s final option is to submit a request for a presidential pardon.
According to polls, some 70 percent of Israeli Jews support a full and immediate pardon.
There will be nothing exceptional if Azaria is reprieved. He will simply be the latest in a long line of security officials who demonstrably killed Palestinians, but were exonerated by a system that treats such murders with impunity, noted Zahalka.
In perhaps the most notorious such case, known as the Bus 300 affair, several security officials were pardoned after they were convicted of killing two Palestinians in 1984. The officers smashed the pair’s skulls with rocks after they had been arrested for hijacking a bus.
Following their pardons, one, Ehud Yatom, went on to serve in the Israeli parliament. In 2001, the then-prime minister, Ariel Sharon, appointed him as his anti-terror adviser, until the courts overruled the decision.
More often, however, soldiers face no trials at all, even where there is overwhelming evidence that they committed crimes, said Shehadeh. “We see lots of cases like Azaria’s, where soldiers injure or kill Palestinians at checkpoints, but usually nothing happens. In Azaria’s case, it was filmed and there was no choice but to prosecute him.”
In fact, Azaria is the first soldier to be tried for manslaughter since 2004, when Taysir Hayb, a Bedouin sniper, killed British solidarity activist Tom Hurndall in Gaza. Hayb was sentenced to eight years and served six and a half.
Usually, when the army is forced to prosecute, human rights groups have noted, the proceedings are dragged out and plea deals arranged to spare soldiers trials for more serious crimes.
Last month, Ben Dery, a border police commander, had his original charge of manslaughter reduced to negligent use of a firearm in a deal with prosecutors. Dery was filmed shooting dead 17-year-old Nadim Nuwara during a protest at a West Bank checkpoint in May 2014, even though the youth posed no danger. Three other Palestinians were hit with live rounds, one of whom also died from his wounds.
The prosecution accepted Dery’s claim that he had mistakenly loaded a live round into his rifle when he intended to shoot a rubber bullet. Nuwara’s family called the deal a “trick” and “shame on the Israeli justice system”.
Zahalka said: “There will never be real justice for Palestinians from the Israeli courts. The proper address is the International Criminal Court, where Israelis must be put on trial for war crimes.”
• First published in Al Jazeera