Elor Azaria received a hero’s welcome on his Tuesday return to the junction in the West Bank city of Hebron, where he shot dead an incapacitated Palestinian attacker two and a half years ago.
Several dozen young boys chanted “Hebron loves you!” upon the arrival of the 22-year-old, who was convicted of manslaughter following the incident, and completed a nine month prison sentence for the shooting in May.
Supporters posed for photos with Azaria and stopped to praise him for his actions while in uniform.
The homecoming was organized by activists of the far-right Otzma Yehudit group, among them Baruch Marzel.
“Before the (Azaria) incident, there were dozens of stabbings, but since then, there have been no stabbings here. Apparently the terrorists understood that they are not going to come out alive,” one settler could be heard saying.
There have been dozens of instances of Palestinians arrested in Hebron on a near-weekly basis with knives hidden underneath their clothes.
Another far-right Hebron resident, Ofer Ohana, thanked Azaria publicly in front of cameras. “The two terrorists who came and tried to kill IDF soldiers here are now melting in their graves, but you are here.”
Ohana later on recorded himself harassing Imad Abu Shamsiyeh, the Hebron resident who filmed Azaria shooting dead Abdul Fatah al-Sharif in March 2016.
“Thank you for filming,” Ohana shouted at him from afar. “You showed the world that whoever tries to harm IDF soldiers dies like a dog.”
Azaria, the so-called Hebron shooter, was sentenced to 18 months in prison last year for killing Sharif, who several minutes earlier had attacked two IDF soldiers with a knife.
IDF chief of staff Gadi Eisenkot later reduced the term by four months and in March a parole board ordered a further cut, to a total of nine months.
The shooting incident was caught on video by a human rights group and spread widely online. It showed 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 of the incident, 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.
The Hebron shooter case revealed deep divisions in Israeli society over the army’s activities in the West Bank, with some — mostly on the right — arguing that he had behaved heroically in killing the Palestinian assailant, while others said he had broken the law and deserved a harsher sentence than he received.
Senior army officers strongly denounced Azaria’s actions, but right-wing politicians, including Netanyahu, called for him to be pardoned.
Comparisons have been drawn to sentences handed out to Palestinians for lesser crimes.
Those critical of Azaria’s sentence have in particular pointed to the jail term of Palestinian teenager Ahed Tamimi.
She was sentenced to eight months in prison in a plea deal after a video that went viral showed Tamimi, 16 at the time, slapping two Israeli soldiers in the West Bank in December.