Waving Israeli flags, chanting right-wing slogans and bopping to nationalist songs, some 2,000 people rallied in Tel Aviv in support of a soldier charged with killing a wounded Palestinian stabber in the West Bank, but failed to fill the city’s iconic Rabin Square.
Media reports and a Times of Israel reporter at the scene put the number of participants at the rally in support of IDF Sgt. Elor Azaria at just over 2,000, far below the tens of thousands organizers had hoped and police had planned for.
Azaria, 19, was charged with manslaughter on Monday, after he was filmed shooting, Abdul Fatah al-Sharif, an incapacitated and disarmed Palestinian attacker, in Hebron last month.
The rally was organized by the soldier’s family along with former Knesset member Sharon Gal, and featured a number of pop singers and public figures who have accused the army of abandoning the soldier by jailing and charging him. It was not revealed by the organizers who provided the funding for the event, which included a stage, lighting and a sound system. Several more prominent pop singers pulled out of the event.
“Everyone has a son, a daughter, a parent, or someone close in the army,” Azaria’s father Charlie said at the rally. “I want the world to know that we are behind them. From this stage I wish to say to Elor: “You can not believe the amount of people here, all the sane people are here.”
The soldier’s mother Oshra also spoke at the event, tearing up as she told participants that her son had always wanted to be a combat soldier “in order to help.”
Many of those attending appeared to be religious. The men had their heads covered with yarmulkes, the women wore skirts and modest attire. But the crowd was far from visually monolithic. There were secular and ultra-Orthodox participants, Russians and Mizrahi Jews. Even a leather-clad biker gang came to support Azaria.
Besides the blue and white of the Israeli flag, demonstrators wore black and yellow t-shirts, scarves and caps — the colors of both the racist Lehava organization and the Beitar Jerusalem soccer team, known for its many anti-Arab fans.
Throughout the rally, Gal said that the event was “not political,” nor was it directed at criticizing the army for its handling of the investigation into the shooting, but was rather meant to offer support to IDF soldiers at large.
A number of protesters, however, did wave banners with slogans attacking Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon, who has repeatedly spoken out against the soldier’s actions and against those who defend them.
Demonstrators called Azaria a “hero” for his actions.
“He deserves a medal of honor!” one man said, but refused to give his name.
Though a number of prominent extremist figures attended the rally, they did not speak on stage. Bentzi Gopstein, head of the violently anti-assimilation Lehava group, mingled with the crowd, surrounded by a posse of teenagers wearing the organization’s t-shirts.
Baruch Marzel, a disciple of the hard-right former MK Rabbi Meir Kahane, also came to support Azaria. Marzel was on the scene of the Hebron shooting and was filmed shaking hands with Azaria after the incident.
Likud MK Oren Hazan, who has vocally supported Azaria and attacked Ya’alon, also stopped by the event.
“We have nothing against the [IDF] Chief of Staff,” Gal said, though a disapproving murmur was audible among many in the crowd. “We support all soldiers, all soldiers are heroes.” Gal was referring to statements by IDF Chief of Staff Gadi Eisenkot, who spoke out against the soldier’s actions.
A small number of demonstrators carried signs with Kahanist slogans and shouted anti-Arab slogans but were for the most part silenced by other protesters.
At the start of the event, a woman caused a stir by holding up a sign with, “Too many terrorists in prison” written on one side and “Kill them all” written on the other. Within minutes, however, the sign was removed.
At least two left-wing counter-protesters were escorted out of the event, and there were scattered low-level scuffles during the rally, a reporter at the scene said.
Police on the scene said they ejected them from the event “to protect their lives and maintain the peace.”
Channel 10 reporter Moav Vardi was attacked by several demonstrators, and was escorted out of the area by a team of undercover cops, the station reported.
Police said there had been no arrests.
The far-right nature of the event was somewhat unusual for the square in the center of the liberal bastion of Tel Aviv known more for peace rallies and economic protests than right-wing demonstrations. The square was the site in November 1995 of the assassination of prime minister Yitzhak Rabin as he left a peace rally.
The Hebron shooting has become a political hot potato for the ruling government, with far-right supporters and some politicians accusing the defense establishment of abandoning one of its own..
Earlier in the day, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called for “balance” in the contentious legal proceedings against Azaria.
“As the father of a soldier and as prime minister, I would like to reiterate: The IDF backs its soldiers,” Netanyahu said at the start of a meeting with Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong. “I am convinced that an examination of the event in Hebron will be done responsibly and sagaciously. Knowing the military justice system, I’m convinced that the court will consider all circumstances regarding the incident.”
In the days leading up to the rally, politicians across the board spoke out against supporters of Azaria, with some questioning the damage an event in his favor may cause to the IDF’s image.
On Monday, Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon compared those backing Azaria to supporters of the Islamic State, noting the terror group’s propensity for executions.
“It really worries me. Part of the power [of the IDF], as many have described it — [David] Ben-Gurion, Menachem Begin and others — is our ethical strength. We aren’t Daesh,” Ya’alon said about the rally, using an Arabic acronym for the Islamic State group.
Earlier Monday, singers David D’or and Eyal Golan had pulled out of participation in the Rabin Square rally for Azaria, after coming under public pressure over the highly politicized nature of the controversial event.
Azaria’s name had been kept under gag order until late Monday afternoon, when a court gave the okay to publish his identity after a request from the soldier’s lawyers.
Azaria, 19, was filmed shooting 21-year-old Sharif in the head on March 24, minutes after Sharif and another assailant stabbed and moderately wounded a soldier in Tel Rumeida, an Israeli enclave of the West Bank city of Hebron. The two assailants were shot — one was killed, while Sharif was wounded — by an army officer during the course of their attack.
The soldier maintains that he believed Sharif might have been wearing a suicide vest and that he shot him out of fear he might activate the bomb.
Military prosecutors have reportedly said the soldier’s behavior at the scene did not indicate any such concern, and noted comments he reportedly made that the stabber should be killed.