The army medic, who has been charged with manslaughter, has garnered support from a broad spectrum of Israeli society
TEL AVIV, Israel - More than 2,000 people gathered in central Tel Aviv on Tuesday evening in a raucous nationalist gathering to demonstrate support for an Israeli soldier who controversially killed a wounded alleged Palestinian attacker in the occupied West Bank.
On a warm evening in the Mediterranean city, droves of people with Israeli flags draped around their shoulders walked down a palm tree-lined avenue towards the central Rabin Square to challenge a court decision to charge Sergeant Elor Azaria with manslaughter over the killing of Abed al-Fatah al-Sharif in Hebron on 24 March.
Footage of the killing released by Israeli rights group B’Tselem after the killing caused international outrage, showing Azaria shooting Sharif in the head as he lay wounded on the ground. Sharif had allegedly taken part in an attack and wounded a soldier martialling the flashpoint town of Hebron - he was shot and killed 11 minutes after the alleged attack had been foiled.
On Tuesday night, young and old Israelis from across the political spectrum joined in unity in Rabin Square in what can only be described as a party atmosphere, with people drinking beer, smoking cigarettes and caring for their children as they chanted in support of Azaria, who is currently being held at a military base awaiting trial.
1000s of Israelis rally in Tel Aviv tonight to show support 4 soldier charged with manslaughter over Hebron killing. pic.twitter.com/SLADr1ZGs7
— Rori Donaghy (@roridonaghy) April 19, 2016
Protesters, who were vetted by tight security at all entrances to the square, chanted against Defence Minister Moshe Ya’alon - loud cheers were heard when a speaker on stage shouted, “The people of Israel are against the defence minister.”
A poll carried out by Israel's Channel 2 recently found that just 20 percent of Israelis supported Ya'alon and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's initial condemnation of the killing in Hebron. The same poll found that 57 percent of Israelis oppose Azaria's arrest, while 42 percent said that his shooting of Sharif was "responsible".
Numerous placards were dotted among a sea of Israeli flags, among them some reading “We have no doubt that the Israeli army is the strongest in the world" and “The nation of Israel is backing you”.
Another simply said: "Kill them all."
The rally was opened by former Israeli MP Sharon Gal, who said: "Elor our brother, we are confident that as you sit in prison, you see the nation of Israel behind you, the nation of Israel with you and not abandoning you."
The demonstration also gained support from popular Israeli music stars, including rapper Kobi Shimoni, as well as other politicians including Nava Boker and Oren Hazan from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud Party.
When Azaria’s mother Oshra took to the stage the crowd roared in support, before she burst into tears while talking about her son, who she said “has the biggest heart [she has] ever known”.
“You are the first one to help any human being who is in trouble,” she said with tears rolling down her face. “You grew up with morality and the values of loving the homeland.
“You shared with me since you were a child the desire to be a fighter and to fulfil your duty to the state.”
Shortly afterwards Azaria’s father Charlie took control of the microphone, and the crowd fell briefly silent as he spoke directly to his incarcerated son.
“I want to tell you that you will not believe the number of people here,” he said, referencing the large number of people gathered in Rabin Square.
“All the sane people of Israel are here. We are strong people and we will not let anybody stop us,” he added, referring to the widely held opinion among those in attendance that Azaria had done nothing wrong by killing Sharif.
Warning: Video contains graphic footage
Nestled among Israeli flags, and a banner that read "A soldier is not a murderer" was Ralph, 60, who moved to Israel from New York when he was 10 years old.
Ralph briefly pulled away from a throng of people chanting "Death to Arabs" to speak to Middle East Eye about why he had decided to attend the rally.
“I’m here to support the soldier that has been unjustifiably blamed for killing a murderer,” he said. “When someone comes to murder you the only thing you can do is to protect yourself.
“He didn’t know whether this murderer had explosives hidden under his coat.”
'They should commend him'
Ralph, who did not provide his surname, added that international criticism of the killing in Hebron, which has been described by Amnesty International as “extreme and unlawful,” is rooted in anti-Semitism.
“This is pure anti-Semitism dating back from the history of Europe,” he said.
Ralph also criticised the Israeli government for not stepping in to stop Azaria facing trial.
“Instead of condemning this soldier they should be giving him a commendation,” he said.
A 22-year-old man from Sderot, near Gaza in Israel’s south, told MEE that he was “very upset” that Azaria, who is 19, is being charged with manslaughter.
“He shouldn’t be put on trial,” said the man, who works in a Tel Aviv bank. “I am happy [with what the soldier did]. Everyone wants the terrorists to die.”
Alongside the 22-year-old was his friend, a 29-year-old female medical student from Tel Aviv who also declined to give her name.
Demonstrating the broad political views held by those in attendance, the 22-year-old said he was from the “far-right,” while his friend said she was a liberal, but also supported Azaria.
“I’m not happy that the soldier killed another person but this person was a terrorist,” she said. “The criticism of Israel is too much.
“There are so many Palestinians that help the terrorists.”
Ralph, who stood nearby as MEE spoke to the two young friends, stepped in to add that he believes the Israeli government has not done enough to deal with a wave of violence that has spread across Israel in recent months.
More than 200 Palestinians, many of them alleged attackers, have been killed since last October, while over 30 Israelis have lost their lives amid a wave of stabbings and car rammings.
Though Israeli soldiers have killed many suspected attackers, Ralph demanded his government do more, describing their response as “very weak”.
“The government has to take pre-emptive actions to stop this,” he said.
“Whether it requires the overthrow of this terrorist government in Gaza, or that we put up a wall that’s both deep and high: we have to do it.”
As the speakers finished up the crowd showed no sign of leaving the square, with people still streaming down at nearly 10pm.
And as the crowd continued to grow, a tense atmosphere began to emerge between protesters and local Israelis enjoying a drink and some food at nearby restaurants.
“We will kill all the leftists,” shouted a man with an Israeli flag held above his head, as he strode down the street past the evening revellers.