Not your average Tel Aviv rally

In my experience, when people announce a protest against the IDF and the security establishment, it’s a small group of far leftists in Tel Aviv. They usually number in the dozens, maybe a bit more, and when the protest actually happens, it’s mostly the same faces from the time before.

This week presented a much rarer spectacle though – a mass rally against the IDF, not organized by the far-left bloggers and activists of Tel Aviv, rather by uber-patriots, former MKs, and nationalist rappers with a bone to pick.

Elor Azaryas parents Oshra and Charlie in front of the stage. (Ben Hartman)

Elor Azaryas parents Oshra and Charlie in front of the stage. (Ben Hartman)

The rally in support of Sgt. Elor Azaria – the 20-year-old Kfir Brigade soldier indicted by IDF military prosecutors this week for shooting and killing a subdued Palestinian attacker in Hebron last month – was of course not billed as a protest against the IDF but as a show of solidarity for an embattled young man and the other soldiers barely out of high school and their families who wait for them to return home on Shabbat.

There is also a desire to embrace his family, a sense that the story of the Azarias could very well be their own if their son was in the wrong place at the wrong time during his military service.

Still, something much more troubling appears to be at hand in this rally and all the other solidarity efforts held in the month since Azaria cocked his assault rifle and fired a single bullet into the head of a Palestinian man who lay motionless on the pavement.

There appears to be an “us against them” sentiment to all this. The “them” here includes B’Tselem (whose volunteer filmed the shooting), Breaking the Silence, the Supreme Court, the Arab parties, and the Israeli media as a whole – not just Haaretz.

Whatever the reason – be it the result of incitement or ideology – a sentiment has risen among the wider Israeli public that groups like B’Tselem and their leftwing enablers in the Israeli media are not only wrong, they constitute a real threat to the country despite the virtually unquestioned control the right wing exerts on the Israeli political system.

The enemy amongst us, no matter how small or marginal they are in reality, are leading the country astray, and leaving young soldiers like Sgt. Azaria as collateral damage.

The sentiment betrays a troubling lack of perspective, if not outright paranoia.

It creates a situation wherein real debate about the actual circumstances of this situation becomes terribly complicated as they fracture along party lines. Though organizers and supporters of the rally have said it’s not a Right vs Left issue, anyone planning to discuss the case at their Passover Seder knows that your opinion regarding Sgt. Azaria says so much about where you stand across the board in Israel.

That’s a shame, because at the most basic level this is a legal story about rules of engagement and the conduct expected of IDF soldiers. Even the most sympathetic supporter of Azaria should be able to look at the film and say that even if you don’t think he is a murderer, he is certainly not a hero. He did not risk his life to further an operational goal or protect his fellow soldiers; he did not show initiative or creativity that strengthened the army. Rather, he made a cold, conscious decision that cannot be justified operationally, something his own commanders and the entire IDF leadership have said since day one.

It should be said, though, that there is another reason that many Israelis would attend a solidarity rally for Azaria, and it has to do with a sentiment borne in blood and resentment.

The resentment is towards what many see as an exaggerated emphasis – by the local and foreign press – on a single act of violence by an IDF soldier. This, after dozens of Israelis have been murdered in stabbings and shooting attacks across the country the past several months, not to mention Monday’s bus bombing, the first of its kind in nearly three years, and one which brings up memories of the Second Intifada. The sentiment is that the victim was a Palestinian who had just tried to murder these soldiers, and even if the soldier violated the rules of engagement, this man was on a suicide mission, unlike the Jewish civilians cut down while waiting at a bus stop, or standing in the entryway of their home, like Dafna Meir.

The resentment is borne by the awareness that it is Azaria who will most likely become the face of the stabbing intifada, and not the Henkin family or Richard Lakin or any of the other Israelis brutally murdered in some of the most vicious violence unleashed on Israeli civilians in years.

This is understandable, and it makes sense that people who feel this way would want to stand up and be counted.

Nonetheless, in these solidarity rallies we can see how divisive the discourse in Israel has become and how difficult it is to carry out a cold analysis of even quite simple events like the shooting in Hebron amid an atmosphere of such roiled emotions.

The outpouring of sympathy for the soldier also shows a lack of faith or outright dismissal of the legal system, a suspicion towards the security establishment and the media, and a serious difficulty looking ourselves in the mirror.

That, in its own way, could be as troubling as the gunshot fired by Sgt. Azaria.

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