Last night more than 5,000 Israelis gathered in Tel Aviv’s Rabin Square in a massive outpouring of support for Elor Azarya, the Israeli soldier and French citizen who was recently indicted on manslaughter charges for executing a wounded, immobile Palestinian man on March 24 in the occupied West Bank city of Hebron.
The rally filled Israel’s most well-known public square, akin to New York City’s Times Square. The crowd stretched as far as the eye could see from the stage. An all ages crowd of mostly Mizrachi, but also Russian and Ashkenazi, Israelis traveled from around the country to express anger at Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon, the media, human rights workers, and anyone they branded as “leftists.” Despite their anger at public officials, they displayed unbridled allegiance to the army and state, in a culmination of what was the largest public display of fascism since the last war on Gaza in 2014, when anti-war protesters were beaten in the streets. Among the sea of flags and signs, one read “My honor is loyalty” – the motto of the Nazi SS. Last night was the latest example of the genocidal current running through Israeli society, one that has support from the grassroots to the parliament.
Also in attendance were members of El Yahud, a loose network of Jewish supremacist thugs who organize mob violence against Palestinians and anyone they deem “leftists” that sprouted during the last assault on Gaza – a group journalist David Sheen compared to the Ku Klux Klan.
One protester called Moshe Ya’alon “a fucking leftist Kibbutznik” and “Judenrat.” He then called human rights organization B’tselem “fucking mercenaries” paid by Europe that should be tried and executed by the state for treason. “Like the Nuremburg process,” he said before adding,“It’s Brussels, not Tel Aviv.”
Ya’alon, for his part, compared the demonstrators along with the majority of Israelis who support Azarya to ISIS supporters.
The square is named for Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, who twenty years ago was assassinated by right-wing Israeli Yigal Amir for his role in the Oslo Accords after official incitement from top political and religious officials, including now Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu who led a mock funeral demonstration featuring a coffin and hangman’s noose where people chanted “Death to Rabin!”
Earlier that day, Netanyahu responded to the upcoming rally and issued a statement that “The IDF backs its soldiers… Our soldiers are not murderers,” and in keeping with the discourse of fire, “I suggest that everyone lower the flames.”
But the flames inciter-in-chief Netanyahu had poured gas on were raging.
The family of Azraya was seated directly in front of the stage and were treated as national heroes, as if their son was a martyr for a holy cause. While public pressure has already been successful in reducing murder charges the killer faced to manslaughter, the crowd burst into chants of “Elor is a hero,” “release the boy,” and “death to Arabs,” “we will burn your village” and “Channel Two is Al Jazeera” One widely-seen sign said “Kill Them All.”
However severely misguided, the anger was understandable. Numerous top Israeli officials have reiterated support for a policy of summary executions – a military practice commonly known as “confirming the kill” – but Netanyahu and Ya’alon’s initial comments distancing themselves from the killer who had simply followed their instructions sparked fierce criticism from the right wing base and attacks from hard-right politicians looking to cash in on popular sentiment.
The mob’s anger at media, human rights workers, and “leftists” took form in attacks on journalists. The violent atmosphere was was apparent from the start. As the crowd gathered before the event officially began, a mob of young men and boys attacked reporters from Israeli television Channels Two and Ten.
My colleague and independent journalist David Sheen was accused of being a “leftist” and attacked by a group of Israelis, then removed by Israeli police who threatened him with a night in jail if he didn’t immediately leave the premises. Sheen suffered bruising to his leg and was limping. A video of the attack uploaded by right-wing rapper The Shadow was viewed 80,000 times in a matter of hours.
“The police are not there to ensure that human and civil rights are respected,” Sheen commented. “They are there to ensure that the minimal amount of people are injured. When a mob of people starts physically attacking a person for no reason, instead of protecting that person at the cost of making the right-wingers even angrier, they prefer to assuage their anger and cleanse the area of anyone who might not share their racist ideology, no matter how innocuous that person is acting.”
Former member of parliament Sharon Gal of Avigdor Lieberman’s Yisrael Beitenu party emceed the event. “Raise the flags!” he urged the crowd. “This is the people of Israel!”
Also in attendance was ruling Likud party’s Oren Hazan, who earlier this month promised a “bullet in the head of every terrorist” at a town hall in Ramle David Sheen and I documented, and to demolish the Al-Aqsa compound and build a Jewish temple in its place last month. Hazan’s populist statements have made him a crowd favorite, and several people took selfies with the lawmaker.
Kahanists former member of parliament Michael Ben Ari and Boston-born settler leader Baruch Marzel, who Azarya shook hands with directly after he executed the Palestinian man, were in attendance too.
Notably absent were more prominent public figures who have scored political points at the expense of Netanyahu and Ya’alon by appealing to popular sentiments. Top national religious Israeli commentator Kalman Liebskind noted the significance of the absence of the mainly Ashkenazi national-religious settler camp, asserting that it was due to their lack of intra-Jewish class, race and religious solidarity:
It was an impressive rally. Among the people who were there were from Lod, Ramle and the periphery. Who wasn’t there? National religious and settlers. The national religious camp always has its hero soldiers, and they always seem to be from our camp. The religious youth can list off the accomplishments of our soldier heroes, but they will never commemorate those soldiers from Be’er Sheva that died right next to them. We’ve never cared for people like Elor Azarya who are carrying the stretcher. Although it’s thanks to that small group that we are allowed to sit comfortably in our strongholds. And we say that we are connected to the people, but let’s stop bluffing ourselves. But the truth is, there is nothing connecting the settlements and the periphery. Imagine if the soldier was one of ours. You would have seen a massive turnout. There would be 100s of buses. Hizme checkpoint [settler checkpoint from West Bank] would be bumper to bumper from all the Tel Aviv bound traffic. Jewish Home party members of parliament would have been there an hour early in full force. In a sentence, Religious Zionists proved again yesterday that all they care about is Religious Zionists. An ocean separates us from Charlie [father of Elor Azarya] from Ramle.
Speeches delivered by Azraya’s parents and sister were the somber exceptions to the otherwise celebratory atmosphere which featured performances by well-known Israeli musical acts including right-wing rapper Subliminal, Maor Edi, Amos Elgali, and Moshik Afia, who sang You and I will change the world, described by Sheen as a “well-known Jewish hippie anthem.”
At times, the performance was overtly festive. A group of Brestlev Orthodox Jews known as the Happy Haredim joined performers onstage, blowing shofars (ceremonial ram’s horns) stuffed with wooden dowels affixed with Israeli flags.
Directly in front of the stage, a performance artist wearing a bizarre oversized piece stood in front of Azraya’s family members. The piece consisted of four life-size dolls and the artist dressed in mock army and police uniforms with their hands and feet locked up.
As the demonstration ended and the crowd poured into the streets, a man in a military uniform took photographs of me. Queries to official army spokespeople as to his identity have not been answered.
Afterwards, I escaped with Israeli activist Ronnie Barkan to a nearby cafe filled with patrons who paid no attention to the massive demonstration nearby. “As a soldier myself, I support the soldier too,” the server told to me as he served me a vegan sandwich. “I’ve also been in that situation.”