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Supporters of jailed Israeli soldier attack president's pardon denial

© AFP/File / by Michael Blum | A photoshopped image of Israeli President Reuven Rivlin wearing a keffiyeh Palestinian scarf is seen on the Haaretz news website on November 20, 2017

JERUSALEM (AFP) - 

Rightist Israeli politicians and angry members of the public lashed out at President Reuven Rivlin Monday over his refusal to pardon a soldier jailed for shooting dead a prone Palestinian assailant.

Rivlin's decision not to intervene in the case of Elor Azaria's manslaughter conviction was the latest chapter in a story that has divided Israel since the March 2016 incident in the Israeli-occupied West Bank.

Police on Monday announced an investigation after a photoshopped picture of Rivlin wearing a Palestinian keffiyeh headdress emerged amid widespread rage over his decision, announced on Sunday.

The badly doctored picture features a smiling Rivlin and the caption "Reuven Rivlin a traitorous Jew-boy may his name and memory be accursed" in Hebrew.

It immediately sparked comparisons with posters of Israeli premier Yitzhak Rabin in a keffiyeh which appeared ahead of his assassination by a Jewish extremist in 1995.

Rivlin was a leading member of the right-wing Likud party until he was elected to the non-partisan presidency but former comrades were among the first to berate him.

Culture Minister Miri Regev, of Likud, said that he had "abandoned Elor Azaria and harmed the institution of the (presidential) pardon".

Rivlin's Facebook page drew messages of support but also scathing criticism.

One person wrote that he was "no longer my president," while another accused him of "fawning to appease your Arab and Leftwing friends."

Lawmaker Oren Hazan, also of Likud, called on him to resign, and said the power to grant pardons should be transferred to parliament.

'Unacceptable'

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who is also Likud leader, said that while the imagery used against Rivlin was beyond what was permissible, criticism in general was a healthy thing.

"Not every criticism is incitement," he told senior Likud members on Monday, according to a party statement.

My only request is for the criticism to be respectful and to the point -- without keffiyehs," Netanyahu added.

"This is unacceptable when it is directed at the president or any other public representative."

"I called for a full pardon for Elor Azaria from the first day," he said. "My opinion has not changed."

The keffiyeh image used against Rabin was a reference to Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, who made the scarf his trademark, and was meant to imply that Rabin was betraying the Jewish state.

Opposition head Isaac Herzog of the Labour party posted Rivlin's doctored image next to that of slain Labour leader Rabin.

"We all know how it starts, we all know how it ends," he wrote on Twitter.

Rivlin's office postponed an olive harvesting event at the presidential residence in Jerusalem set for Monday morning, citing "inclement weather," despite blue skies.

Azaria is due to remain in prison until October 2018.

The March 2016 shooting in the 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, a sergeant and military medic at the time, shot him in the head without any apparent provocation.

He said he had feared Sharif was wearing an explosive belt and could blow himself up -- a claim judges rejected.

The incident, and Azaria's subsequent arrest and trial, deeply divided Israel and led to an extraordinary rift between right-wing politicians who wanted to see him released and top military brass, who harshly condemned his actions.

On July 30, a military court turned down Azaria's appeal against his conviction for manslaughter and upheld an 18-month prison sentence, which he began serving on August 9.

In September, Israel's Chief of Staff General Gadi Eisenkot reduced the term to 14 months.

Rights group 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".

by Michael Blum

© 2017 AFP