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Israel cuts Elor Azaria sentence by four months

Decision by Israel's military chief of staff condemned by Palestinians as a 'license to kill without accountability'.

Elor Azaria

Israel's military chief of staff has reduced the sentence of a soldier convicted of manslaughter for shooting dead a severely wounded Palestinian, a decision denounced by Palestinian leaders as a "license to kill without any accountability".

The move to cut Elor Azaria's sentence from 18 to 14 months was announced on Wednesday, about 18 months after he shot a bullet from close range into the head of 21-year-old Abdel al-Fattah al-Sharif.

"Despite the fact that it is clear from the words of the chief of staff that Azaria's actions were contrary to the code of conduct and to the values of the IDF (Israel Defence Forces) ... he decided to do so out of consideration of the fact that he is a combat soldier and a warrior" who had "endured a lot", Jonathan Conricus, an Israeli military spokesman, said.

But human rights groups and Palestinian leaders, who had already slammed the 18-month sentence as "extremely lenient", said Wednesday's decision was further proof that for Israelis, "Palestinian lives mean nothing to them".

"We are in a system of apartheid. The reduction of the sentence is an encouragement for Israeli soldiers to commit violations" against Palestinians, Mustafa Barghouti, senior member of the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) central council, said.

"In comparison, Palestinians are subjected to collective punishment whenever one of them is accused of committing a crime," he said.

He cited the demolitions of homes of families of Palestinians accused of crimes, which has now affected 40,000 people, adding that families are being deprived of services, including healthcare.

"It's a green light, a license to kill for Israeli soldiers without any accountability," he said. "It is most important that we expose this military practice, and it should be punished."

The March 2016 shooting in the occupied West Bank city of Hebron was caught on video by a human rights group and spread widely online.

It showed Sharif lying wounded on the ground, shot along with another Palestinian Aziz al-Qasrawi, after stabbing and wounding a soldier, according to the army.

Some 11 minutes after the initial shooting, Azaria, a sergeant and military medic at the time of the incident, shot him in the head without any apparent provocation.

Conviction in military trial 

Azaria said he feared Sharif was wearing an explosive belt and could blow himself up, a claim judges rejected.

"His motive for shooting was that he felt the terrorist deserved to die," Judge Colonel Maya Heller said at the time as she dismissed Azaria's defence.

Azaria was convicted of manslaughter in a military trial. He had faced a maximum 20 years in prison, but he was sentenced to 18 months in prison, which was later upheld by the military court following an appeal.

But 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." 

Polls showed most Israeli Jews agreed with Azaria's refusal to show remorse.

Large segments of the public, including politicians on Israel's nationalist right, sided with Azaria. They believed he acted appropriately, and called him a hero who 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".

Human rights groups pointed to the case as an example of what they call an unequal system of justice for Israelis and Palestinians.

Amnesty International has said Azaria's sentence does "not reflect the gravity of the offence". The UN human rights office said it was an "unacceptable" punishment for "an apparent extra-judicial killing".

Azaria completed his mandatory three-year military service on July 20.

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