Rally-goers shouted anti-Arab slogans and attacked persons perceived as being leftists or journalists.
Hours earlier, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu issued a call for leniency for the soldier.
Times of Israel reporter Judah Ari Gross tweeted that an activist from B’Tselem, the human rights group that released the video of Azarya shooting and killing Abd al-Fattah al-Sharif, had to be escorted out of Rabin Square by police in order to “protect his life.”
Reporter David Sheen, a contributor to The Electronic Intifada, was set upon by a mob and then ordered to leave the area by police after he was accused of association with B’Tselem.
Sheen told The Electronic Intifada he arrived at Rabin Square before the rally began but as several hundred people had already gathered. Some asked him to film them with their signs supporting Azarya.
At that point, Sheen said, a man began asking him why he was filming. Other members of the crowd quickly began joining in, shouting at Sheen, “Are you B’Tselem? Go to Gaza!”
Sheen said he tried to remain calm and exit the square but the increasingly agitated mob followed him and began to surround and kick him.
He was then grabbed by a police officer and extracted. Sheen said police took his camera equipment and questioned him. After he told them he was a journalist, they said he either had to leave immediately or face a night in jail. Sheen said he chose to leave and that police returned his equipment.
The police were effectively acting accomplices to the mob, Sheen observed, ensuring the removal of journalists who could document what occurred.
Sheen said that the assault was frightening, “because I knew that everyone else at that rally was of the same mindset and there wasn’t anyone who was going to step in, so it very easily could have gotten much worse and there wouldn’t have been anybody to fish me out.”
He said he had been threatened at other recent rallies he has covered, but had not experienced that level of violence.
“It doesn’t surprise me that people in Israel harbor hatred towards journalists,” Sheen said.
“They don’t see the soldier’s actions as a problem,” he added. “They see the problem as exposure to world media that puts pressure on their government to withdraw support from that soldier.”
“But it still caught me by surprise how quickly people were whipped up into a frothing at the mouth mob,” he said.
Chants from the crowd heard by Sheen included “Kill the leftists” and “Elor Azarya is a hero, bring back our boy!”
A video of the mob assault on Sheen was posted on Facebook by a user who accuses him of being a B’Tselem videographer intent on “provoking” the rally-goers. Sheen is not affiliated with the human rights group.
Members of the mob can be heard shouting “son of a whore” and other insults.
“Kill them all”
Ahmed Tibi, a Palestinian lawmaker in Israel’s parliament, posted an image of a sign displayed at the rally reading “Kill them all.”
The rally was organized by Sharon Gal, an Israeli journalist and former lawmaker, and was addressed by Azarya’s parents.
Several Israeli pop icons were also scheduled to entertain the rally-goers, including singers Moshik Afia, Maor Edri and Amos Elgali, as well as rapper Subliminal, the Israeli website Ynet reported.
But two performers, Eyal Golan and David D’Or, withdrew at the last minute in the wake of public outrage that their appearance could be seen as an attack on the Israeli army, which has faced heavy criticism for taking any measures at all against Azarya.
“I would have liked to come to perform at the assembly in the name of art, and personally as a performer and as a human being,” Golan stated. “However, I’m sorry to say that there are those who will use this as a political spectacle.”
“I wanted to show my sympathy to the family of the soldier,” D’Or said, “not to say anything against the IDF [Israeli army] or the IDF chief of staff, God forbid.”
Last month, an opinion poll found that 57 percent of the Israeli public saw nothing wrong with Azarya’s actions and 32 percent supported it outright. Just five percent saw shooting an injured, incapacitated person as murder.
That support comes from the highest echelons of Israel’s government. In a statement to media hours before the rally, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu demanded leniency for Azarya.
“As the father of a soldier and as Prime Minister, I would like to reiterate: the IDF backs its soldiers,” Netanyahu said.
“In my familiarity with the military justice system, I am convinced that the court will consider all circumstances regarding the incident. Our soldiers are not murderers. They act against murderers and I hope that a way will be found to balance between the action and the overall context of the event,” the prime minister added.
Netanyahu’s attempt to prejudge the outcome of any trial appears to be an effort to ride the wave of popularity Azarya is enjoying that was vividly – and violently – on display at the Tel Aviv rally.
Previously, B’Tselem has condemned similar statements by top Israeli officials as sending messages that “empty the official restrictions on use of force, and particularly on live fire, of real meaning.”
Abd al-Fattah al-Sharif and Ramzi al-Qasrawi, both 21, were shot dead after they allegedly tried to attack Israeli occupation soldiers in the West Bank city of Hebron on 24 March.
The killing of al-Sharif was caught on video which shows the youth on the ground, incapacitated, as Azarya points a rifle at him from close range and fires directly at his head.
The Palestinian human rights group Al-Haq, which investigated the incident, called the killings war crimes and noted the complicity of Israeli medical workers and others in the vicinity who did nothing to assist the injured al-Sharif before he was extrajudicially executed.
Al-Haq dismissed the arrest of Azarya as part of a public relations effort, noting that no one was detained in the shooting of al-Qasrawi, whose killing was not filmed.
“The occupation authorities’ detention of the accused soldier is a cover-up of the crime, to show the occupier state as law abiding and holding violators accountable,” Al-Haq stated.
“The arrest of one soldier and not the other suggests that what the other soldier had done was not a crime because it was not captured on camera,” the group added.
Israel at first announced Azarya would be charged with murder, but following a surge of public support, the charges were downgraded to manslaughter.