Thousands of people attended a rally at Tel Aviv's central Rabin Square on Saturday, calling for unity and solidarity following the manslaughter conviction of an Israeli soldier who shot and killed a Palestinian assailant who had been subdued by security forces.
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The gathering was launched by Israel Defense Force Capt. (res.) Ziv Shilon in response to what he called painfully divisive responses to last Wednesday's manslaughter conviction of Elor Azaria.
Police said that some 3,000 people attended the rally.
The conviction of Azaria over an incident in March in the West Bank city of Hebron prompted a groundswell of sympathy for the soldier, whose supporters cast him "everyone's child," saying that he should have received backing.
Shilon, who was severely injured in the 2014 Gaza war, wrote on his Facebook page following the conviction: “I feel that our people are divided, in pain [and] hate, disappointed, despairing.” Shilon said he had been seeking unsuccessfully to find a sliver of hope in the situation.
“Yes, I, who did not cry in difficult moments that I don’t wish upon anyone, sat today and simply cried. I cried over the people of Israel who are tearing themselves to pieces with unprecedented hatred. I cried over the hands I left in Gaza and I asked myself, maybe for the first time in my life, whether it was worth fighting for a people that hates itself," he said.
"This Saturday night at 8 P.M., I will be sitting in Rabin Square, even if I’m alone, with a huge sign calling for solidarity and mutual love and a return to our center of gravity, which is crumbling – our unity. I call upon everyone, right, left, religious, secular, non-Jews, politicians, artists, ordinary folks, citizens of Israel: Come and help me come embrace our country. It’s bleeding,” he added.
Shilon also roundly condemned incitement against IDF Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Gadi Eisenkot, who has been highly critical of Azaria's conduct.
Addressing the rally. Shilon said that verbal and physical violence are not the way to express opinions.
The rally was attended by a few Knesset members, including Yesh Atid Chairman Yair Lapid, Zionist Union leaders Isaac Herzog and Tzipi Livni and Yehuda Glick (Likud).
Addressing the rally, Glick said: "We are here to say that love is free [and] to hear and respect opinions from the entire spectrum. I am here to show respect for the chief of staff and the army and for Elor Azaria as well. He is not a criminal. I am here to [declare]: one people, one country." And he added: "Love and light are a million times stronger than hate and darkness."
Opposition leader MK Isaac Herzog (Zionist Union) wrote in a post on Facebook before the rally: "All of us, right and left, leaders of the public and shapers of opinion, from the prime minister to the last Knesset member, must come out this evening in a clear and unambiguous statement that calls to stop the insanity and antagonism, and bring back the sanity and tolerance to the nation."
Earlier, Livni wrote: “I read Ziv Shilon’s post and my heart broke for all of us over what’s happening to us. He isn't crying over the loss of his hands, but rather over Israeli society. Ziv is asking us, the citizens of Israel, to come to the square and embrace the country. I’ll be there. If Ziv is still ready to fight for the country, we can’t give up on it.” Livni called for Israelis to unite around the Declaration of Independence, for a Jewish and democratic state, where there is equality and respect for the law and the courts.
MK Erel Margalit (Zionist Union), who attended the rally, said he regrets that in Israel the depth of the incitement is linked to the "depth of the investigation," implying the police investigation against Netanyahu.
Several members of the far-right Lehava groups arrived at the rally and started a counter-protest calling for Azaria's freedom.
Following the rally, the police detained the leader of the struggle for Azaria's release, Ran Karmi Buzaglo, after he came on stage and sought to address the demonstrators.
Asked why Karmi Buzaglo wasn't allowed to speak, Shilon said he feels badly about it, adding that "this is not the message of this evening."