Dozens Injured in Ethiopian-Israeli Protest Against Police Brutality in Tel Aviv

Police take harsh action against protesters hurling rocks and bottles; earlier, thousands blocked roads in rally against police violence and racism.

Protesters at the entrance to the Tel Aviv City Hall in Rabin Square.
Protesters at the entrance to the Tel Aviv City Hall in Rabin Square., May 3, 2015. Photos by Tomer Appelbaum

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.

(Tomer Appelbaum)

(Tomer Appelbaum)

(Tomer Appelbaum)

(Tomer Appelbaum)

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.”

A large majority of those attending the demonstration last week in Jerusalem were young people, many of whom were born in Israel but continue to suffer from discrimination. “As opposed to Baltimore,” said Fanta, “we’re focusing on the goal of bringing equality and justice, and preventing them from embittering the youth. The youth are our future and when the police open files for no reason, in effect the government pushes them into crime, where they’ll find their place.”

A wider struggle

In addition to the struggle against police violence, the organizers want to air a variety of issues that contribute to the community’s absorption and integration difficulties, such as the poverty-stricken neighborhoods, for example.

Protesters block the Ayalon Freeway, May 3, 2015.

“We don’t want favors, we want to be like everyone else.” A few hours before the demonstration, and after they had received the appropriate permits, they make sure to explain that the protests will not end until the goal is achieved. “We’re peace-loving. We’re part of this nation, Jews who want justice, to take to the streets and cry out for change. We have enough enemies outside the country and don’t need enemies from within, but the handful who are against us must be held responsible. We’re calling on everyone to behave with restraint and without violence, because that’s not the way. Violence will not necessarily achieve better results. We’re disappointed by the results of the demonstration on Wednesday, apparently it still hasn’t penetrated and therefore we’ll continue to demonstrate.”

Despite the call to avoid violence, Meni Yasu, another organizer, said he’s afraid of violence, especially because the police don’t exercise restraint either. “We’re trying to achieve important goals, and the demonstration could spin out of control. The young people, the new generation that is leading the protest, has a bellyful about all these years and wants to let off steam, the police are not known for restraint and things could get out of control.”

Therefore, said Yasu, the government should come out with a declaration as to what they will do in order to help, “and not silence us with another investigative committee, because we know how that will end.” He said that the local authorities must be the first to act. “We see in certain cities that there’s a wide-scale concentration of racism, and if the local councils address the problem in depth, in the areas of education and employment, it will be easier and simpler to address it on the national level.”