A Tel Aviv rally for the Israeli soldier charged with manslaughter after shooting dead a disarmed Palestinian stabber drew approximately 2,000 people on Tuesday night, according to police estimates.
The number of demonstrators at the rally in Rabin Square was considerably lower than the tens of thousands anticipated by organizers and police, according to the Times of Israel. The demonstration was to call for the release of Elor Azaria, who was indicted Monday for shooting a Palestinian man, Abdel Fattah al-Sharif, who had stabbed an Israeli soldier last month in the tense West Bank city of Hebron, several media outlets reported.
The charge against Azaria, 19, of Ramle, marked the first time in over 10 years that an Israeli soldier has been charged with manslaughter for a killing that took place during field operations, according to Haaretz.
The case has generated considerable controversy, with some Israelis outraged that Azaria violated rules of engagement by shooting someone who was supine and unarmed, while others are outraged that he is being disciplined, particularly because Azaria has said he feared al-Sharif might be about to detonate an explosive.
In Rabin Square, demonstrators chanted “He’s a hero” and “Release the soldier,” according to Haaretz. One group of protesters held up a flag that read “We are all Kahane,” the Times of Israel reported, referring to Meir Kahane, the assassinated far-right American-born activist and Knesset member whose political party was outlawed in Israel for being racist.
Another sign said “Neutralizing terrorists — that’s the obligation of soldiers. Charges against them — that’s the crime.” A mass-produced sign that appears in a photo on the Haaretz website says “Loving the IDF. Freeing Elor.”
Several participants reportedly attacked a television reporter, who was quickly removed from the crowd by police, according to the Times of Israel. Early in the rally, police forced an activist with the B’Tselem human rights group to leave, saying they were “protecting his life and maintaining the peace.”
B’tselem, which is known for its advocacy on behalf of Palestinians in the West Bank, filmed and released the video showing Azaria shooting al-Sharif.
Azaria’s parents both addressed the rally from the stage.
His mother, Oshra, who earlier this week published an open letter to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu pleading for her son’s release, said of her son, according to Haaretz, “I raised you on the values of morality and patriotism. From a young age you wanted to be combat soldier and give back to your country. I pray that we will be able to have Passover seder together.”
In anticipation of the protest, Netanyahu told media, “I am convinced that the examination of the event in Hebron will be done responsibly and rationally. Our soldiers are not murderers. They operate against murderers and I hope that the way will be found to find a balance between the act and the overall context of the event. In the meantime, I suggest we all lower the flames.”
Israeli rapper Subliminal and singer Moshik Afia were expected to perform at the protest.
Opposition leader Isaac Herzog of the Zionist Union party described the rally as a “protest by the far right” and called on the soldier’s family “not to turn this difficult and complicated incident into a campaign against the IDF.”
According to Ynet, many demonstrators showed up wrapped in Israeli flags and some chanted racist slogans.
Tzipi Livni, a Knesset member from Zionist Union, criticized the rally.
“We live in a country where we don’t hang people in the city squares and we don’t acquit them in the city squares,” she said. “Justice will prevail in the courtroom.”