, Rishon LeZion, Israel, Aug 9 – An Israeli soldier convicted of manslaughter for shooting dead a prone Palestinian assailant in a trial that deeply divided the country arrived alongside motorcycle-riding supporters Wednesday to begin his 18-month prison term.
Elor Azaria, 21, entered the Tserifin military base near the city of Rishon LeZion to begin serving his sentence, his car driven by his father festooned with photographs of him and Israeli flags.
A few dozen supporters waved Israeli flags and chanted Azaria’s name as the car pulled up. Journalists surrounded him and his arrival was broadcast live on television.
Along the route from his home in nearby Ramla, several supporters on motorcycles rode alongside his car, including some wearing leather vests with “God Bless Israel” on the back,
A smiling Azaria briefly exited the car outside the base but did not speak. His father spoke briefly, saying: “Thank you to the Israeli people,” before driving inside the base’s gates.
In a message posted on social media last week, the French-Israeli said that “I am going to prison with my head held high. I love this country with all my heart. I love the army.”
On July 30, a military court rejected Azaria’s appeal against his conviction for manslaughter and upheld the prison sentence.
He could have appealed to the country’s supreme court, but opted not to after Defence Minister Avigdor Lieberman pleaded for him to allow the country to move on.
He has instead requested a reduced sentence from armed forces chief of staff Lieutenant General Gadi Eisenkot, asking for community service instead of prison time.
Azaria can also request a pardon from Israeli President Reuven Rivlin, with right-wing leaders including Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu calling for it to be granted.
Opinion polls have suggested more than two-thirds of Jewish Israelis support pardoning him.
– ‘Deserved to die’ –
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 Abdul Fatah al-Sharif, 21, lying wounded on the ground, shot along with another Palestinian after stabbing and wounding a soldier, according to the army.
Some 11 minutes after the initial shooting, Azaria shot him in the head without any apparent provocation.
He 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 as he read the verdict in January.
Azaria, a sergeant and military medic at the time of the incident, was sentenced in February.
He later appealed the verdict, while military prosecutors asked for an increased sentence after having initially requested between three and five years.
Both requests were refused by military judges.
In his message last week, Azaria did not express remorse, but said he would not have fired if he had known there was no bomb.
“I assure you that I acted out of a sense of immediate danger at the scene of a terror attack, but the court has said its piece,” he said.
“We live in a state of law so I am going to serve the sentence imposed on me, with the hope that it will be reduced. It’s important for me to emphasise: I grew up in a moral home. Had I known that the terrorist didn’t have a bomb, I would not have shot.”
The trial captivated Israel and highlighted deep divisions in public opinion between those who decry the shooting and those who say it was justified.
Military leaders strongly condemned Azaria’s actions.
However, right-wing leaders including Netanyahu have called for him to be pardoned in an extraordinary public rift between politicians and the military.
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”, and 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 and was moved from confinement to his base to house arrest.
His imprisonment had been postponed pending his appeal.