Clashes erupted in Tel Aviv’s Rabin Square on Sunday as thousands of people gathered to protest police brutality toward Israeli Jews of Ethiopian descent.
Dozens of people were injured, many of them police officers. Police made 43 arrests. Later, police stated that 56 police officers were lightly wounded in the protest, and one was moderately wounded.
Police fired stun grenades and tear gas while some protesters tried to break into the Tel Aviv City Hall, located at the square. Other protesters hurled rocks, planks and plastic and glass bottles at police.
The protest began near the Kaplan Interchange, where protesters blocked major arteries and junctions, including the Ayalon South freeway and Hashalom Interchange, as well as surrounding streets. Protesters also marched along Derech Begin towards the train station but were blocked by police.
Later on, the protest moved to Rabin Square as police gradually opened the blocked roads.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called for calm on Sunday evening, saying that all complaints must be investigated "but there is no place for such violence and lawlessness."
Police Commissioner Yohanan Danino said on Sunday evening that the police will bring to justice anyone who hurt civilians and policemen, adding that the rally "was not a legitimate protest in a democratic state" and blaming a handful of agitators for harming the Israeli Ethiopians’ struggle. He added that "most of the claims made by Ethiopian Israelis are not police-related at all. There is a deeper problem here of their assimilation. I do take responsibility and I think we have a problem with some of the cases mentioned, and we will handle it."
Public Security Minister Yitzhak Aharonovitz said that "some of the complaints against the police were justified. There were events that need to be examined, and the police also has to check itself. All government and municipal offices need to provide a comprehensive solution."
On Monday, Netanyahu will host a meeting attended by Ethiopian Israeli community leaders as well as Demas Fekadeh, the soldier who was filmed being beaten by police officers. The meeting will also include representatives from the Public Security Ministry, the Welfare Ministry, the Absorption Ministry, the Interior Ministry, municipal offices and police command.
‘We’re not Baltimore’
Speaking ahead of the demonstration, organizers rejected comparisons with recent events in Baltimore but said the protests will continue until their messages sink in and the government takes action to foster equality. “The fact that we’re black doesn’t mean that we’re Baltimore,” one of the organizers, Inbal Bogale, told Haaretz. “In Jerusalem we didn’t ‘do a Baltimore’ as people are saying, that’s not what it was about,” she said, referring to protests in the capital on Thursday night that turned violent. “The police documented every moment of the demonstration and I want to see the documentation, whether we really started the violence as the police claim. We marched in the streets and they fired stun grenades at us.”
Bogale said Sunday’s protest was expected to be loud but nonviolent. “We cannot use violence when we’re demonstrating against it.” Another organizer, who did not want his name used, said that over the weekend a disagreement arose among the organizers after several human-rights organizations expressed an interest in joining the protest. He said there was a fear of diluting the message and losing focus on the main objectives of the protest.
Around 20 young members of Israel’s Ethiopian community initiated the protests, but refused to take the credit and saying that they don’t want to be labeled as leaders. “There are no politicians here and no distinguished members of the community, as they like to say,” said Misganaw Fanta, one of the organizers. “We’re part of a community that has experienced and is experiencing these things, that’s hurting and wants to cry out, to go out to the streets together and to protest against the way we are treated."
Police prepare for a rally by Ethiopian Israelis in central Tel Aviv, May 3, 2015
“There’s no single leader behind the demonstration, it’s an entire community that is coming out to demonstrate,” added Bogale. She and Fanta say the trigger for the protest was the video that was made public last week, showing police officers beating an Ethiopian-Israeli man, a young man serving in the Israel Defense Forces and in uniform, but it was preceded by years of frustration. “It’s a pressure cooker that exploded. There are hundreds of young Ethiopians the police open case files against for no reason, and that ruins their lives. They’re good guys who want to get ahead, to study, to contribute to the state, but they can’t be combat soldiers, they don’t study, they’re called criminals,” explained Fanta.
Bogale said the promise by national police commissioner Yohanan Danino to reexamine such case files exposes the community’s lack of trust in the police. “From our perspective, the video with the soldier was the last straw” and Danino’s statement after Thursday’s demonstration in Jerusalem “shows that he has no confidence in his officers,” Bogale said, adding that the measure was insufficient.
Fanta said that removing the police officer who beat up the soldier in the video would not satisfy the community. “You have to recognize that they committed a crime and should be punished, not only dismissed.”
Ethiopian Israelis protesting in Tel Aviv, May 3, 2015.
Some of the organizers have known each other for a long time and tried to help the family of a young Ethiopian Israeli man, Yosef Salamseh, in their quest for answers surrounding his death. Officers used a stun gun on Salamseh while arresting him on suspicion of breaking and entering. He committed suicide a few months later. “We saw what happened to the Salamseh family, they went to half the country and nobody gave them answers. We insist that the family receive answers, we’re going out to battle so that cases like Yosef’s are not repeated.”
“In general I have nothing against policemen, but there’s the handful that has to be taken care of, and that’s our goal,” explained Fanta, and Bogale added that the goal is “to reach a situation where they won’t discriminate based on skin color, where racism doesn’t become routine. The policemen have to undergo training so that they won’t judge a person by his color.”