Several thousand people participated in a Tel Aviv rally Saturday evening to protest against recent calls to violence directed at the IDF chief of staff and members of the military tribunal who convicted IDF Sgt. Elor Azaria of manslaughter earlier this week.
The rally was initiated by Ziv Shilon, an IDF officer who lost an arm in an explosion in the Gaza Strip in 2012, after he wrote a heartfelt Facebook post earlier this week condemning the radicalization of the discourse surrounding the deeply divisive case.
Police assessed that around 3,000 people were at the event in Tel Aviv’s Rabin Square.
In attendance were Zionist Union leader Isaac Herzog, Yesh Atid leader Yair Lapid and the families of three Israeli teenagers who were kidnapped and murdered in the West Bank in 2014 — Gil-ad Shaar, Eyal Yifrach and Naftali Fraenkel.
Likud MK Yehudah Glick also spoke at the rally, and called for “unconditional love” and “respect for opinions across the political spectrum.”
In his Facebook post, Shilon wrote: “I, who have not cried even in the most difficult moments, sat today and simply cried over the nation of Israel ripping itself to shreds in unprecedented hate.”
Shilon said he felt Israelis were in despair. “My 70-year-old father sat beside me in the living room and said ‘I’ve never seen such hatred in the country in my life.’
“I…asked myself maybe for the first time in my life: ‘Was it worth fighting for a nation that hates itself?’”
And so Shilon vowed to come to Rabin Square Saturday night “with a large sign calling for solidarity and mutual love…even if I have to do it alone.”
Herzog had earlier urged Israelis to attend the rally. “We must all go out tonight to issue a clear and unequivocal call to stop the madness and fervor, and restore sanity and tolerance to this country.” Herzog said in a Facebook post.
After Azaria was convicted of manslaughter on Wednesday for killing a wounded Palestinian stabber in Hebron last year, many politicians called for the 19-year-old to be pardoned. The case has deeply divided the country.
In the face of strong condemnation of Azaria’s actions by top military brass, including IDF Chief of Staff Gadi Eisenkot and then-defense minister Moshe Ya’alon, far-right supporters and some politicians had accused the defense establishment of abandoning one of its own.
The verdict also drew a flurry of threatening messages against military judge Maya Heller, who headed the tribunal that convicted Azaria.
Security around Heller and the other two judges on the panel, Lt. Col. Carmel Wahabi and Lt. Col. Yaron Sitbo, was tightened on Wednesday, amid reports of thousands of threats of violence against them on social media and elsewhere.
On Thursday, the attorney general instructed police to launch an investigation into a group of demonstrators who were captured on camera threatening Eisenkot over Azaria’s conviction.
Protesters verbally attacked Eisenkot outside the Kirya military headquarters in Tel Aviv, where Azaria’s verdict was delivered, shouting slogans such as, “Gadi watch out, Rabin is looking for a friend,” referring to former prime minister Yitzhak Rabin, who was assassinated by a right-wing extremist in 1995.
In addition, police arrested two people on suspicion of calling for attacks against the judges. Both were released to house arrest Thursday, on condition that they stay off social media and keep away from Heller.
According to social media tracking firm Vigo, in addition to the slogans shouted at the trial, some 2,500 posts put online as of Thursday afternoon threatened Eisenkot.