Thousands rally to call for release of Israeli soldier who shot Palestinian assailant

TEL AVIV (Reuters) - Thousands of Israelis rallied in a central Tel Aviv square on Tuesday calling for the release of a soldier charged with manslaughter for shooting dead a wounded Palestinian assailant.

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Sergeant Elor Azaria, a conscript infantry medic, was captured on video firing once into the head of the Palestinian as he lay prone on the ground after having been shot by other soldiers while taking part in a stabbing attack on March 24.

Many of the mainly right-wing protesters in Rabin Square chanted nationalist slogans, waved Israeli flags and held up banners criticizing Israeli leaders, saying they had branded Azaria for acting improperly before all the facts were known.

One of many banners in the crowd which police estimated at some 5,000, about a quarter of the number the organizers had anticipated, read “Free Elor”.

“The prime minister, the minister of defense and the chief of staff ... (tried) the young man before we knew all the details... They set the tone, they climbed a tall tree and now they don’t know how to get down, so they have to try him and make a symbol of him,” said demonstrator Eli Hubara.

The incident in Hebron, a city in the Israeli-occupied West Bank that has been a hotbed of six months of Palestinian street violence, tapped into international controversy over whether Israeli security forces’ response has been heavy-handed.

Defence lawyers say Azaria took action because he feared the Palestinian had a hidden bomb. Prosecutors, citing testimony from Azaria’s comrades and his apparently calm disposition, contend that it was an illegal shooting motivated by revenge.

Azaria was initially held on a murder warrant but the lighter manslaughter charge, reflecting a view that the killing was not premeditated, could spell a jail term of up to 20 years.

An opinion poll last month found 57 percent of Israelis felt Azaria should never been arrested. Almost 60,000 people have signed an online petition demanding he be decorated for heroism.

The outcry over the incident has exposed rare rifts over the role and ethics of Israel’s conscript military, long a symbol of unity among the majority Jews where deep concern for security is largely shared across the social and political spectrum.

Over the past six months, Palestinians have killed 28 Israelis and two U.S. citizens in knife, car-ramming and gun assaults. In recent weeks, these have slowed from near-daily occurrences to more sporadic incidents.

Israeli forces have killed at least 191 Palestinians, 130 of whom Israel says were assailants. Many others were shot dead during clashes and protests since October.

Writing by Ori Lewis; Editing by Mark Heinrich