Police Believe Ethiopian-Israeli Protests Will Fade Due to Leadership Vacuum

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An Ethiopian-Israeli protester in Tel Aviv, May 3, 2015. Credit: Tomer Appelbaum

The protest in Tel Aviv on Sunday by members of Israel’s Ethiopian community, which deteriorated into violence on the part of both demonstrators and the police, was largely spontaneous and had no clear leaders. That, according to police intelligence assessments. Since it’s hard to sustain a coordinated protest movement over time without leadership, police believe the protests will continue at a lower level for a few more days before ending.

From the moment protesters started blocking the Ayalon Freeway on Sunday, police tried to find a leader with whom they could negotiate over the boundaries of the demonstration. One person they spoke with was former Knesset member Pnina Tamano-Shata.

Tamano-Shata asked Tel Aviv police chief Benzi Sau to let the demonstrators block the southbound lanes between the Shalom and LaGuardia interchanges for a limited time. She promised that afterward, she would make sure they cleared the freeway, police said. Sau agreed, and ordered police to deploy among the thousands of drivers stuck in traffic to make sure no fights broke out between drivers and protesters.

About half an hour later, Tamano-Shata did try to get the demonstrators to leave the highway, but to no avail. “I’ve lost control of the people,” police said she told Sau. “As far as I’m concerned, you can disperse them and act as you see fit.”

After about an hour, the demonstrators spontaneously decided to leave the freeway and return to Rabin Square. There, a few protesters began throwing stones and bottles at the police, but most of the demonstrators opposed this behavior and asked them to stop.

By 10 P.M., there were 47 injured police officers, including head injuries and a broken jaw. At that point, dozens of young protesters tried to smash windows and break into city hall, adjacent to the square. Demonstrators threw a police motor scooter at officers, overturned a patrol car and smashed windows in storefronts along Ibn Gabirol Street. Only then, police said, did they begin using riot-control measures.

They also tried to get Ethiopian-Israeli religious leaders to convince the demonstrators to stop the violence, but that didn’t work, they said.

Police said they had limited time to prepare for the unlicensed demonstration, because they had originally thought it wouldn’t happen until Tuesday. Thus only on Saturday did they start making preparations for the Tel Aviv demonstration.

The police say they did everything possible to allow the protest to take place. Demonstrators, however, disagree. They accuse the police of using unreasonable force to disperse them, including sending mounted officers into the crowd and hurling stun grenades indiscriminately at protesters who took no part in the violence.

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