Reporter Injured by Stun Grenade at Ethiopian-Israeli Protest Recounts Escalation

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Police attempt to disperse protesters with a water cannon in Rabin Square, May 3, 2015.Credit: David Bachar

She’s been covering war zones as a journalist for years, tackling the most dangerous assignments - from Syria to Libya to Ukraine - and countless demonstrations and riots in the West Bank and in Jerusalem.

So the irony is not lost on Stephanie Freid that the first real injury of her career took place just a few blocks from her home in north Tel Aviv, when she found herself bleeding in the center of Rabin Square, being hit in the head with a stun grenade tossed by police aiming to break up protests by angry Ethiopian-Israeli youth.

Footage of Freid being put in an ambulance with her head swathed in bandages, feeling “shocked and disoriented” and taken to the hospital was broadcast live on national television. She had been reporting on the protest for China’s CCTV, for whom she has worked for the past five years, when she was hurt.

“Honestly,” she confesses, “It’s all kind of embarrassing. I’m not supposed to be the news. I’m just supposed to be covering it.”

Freid was rushed to the hospital for stitches in her head where the grenade exploded, and still suffers a chronic headache that she hopes will dissipate in the coming weeks. Now released, she will have to return to the hospital for follow-up brain scans and to have her hearing checked.

CCTV  correspondent Stephanie Freid injured when a stun grenade hit her in the head during the protest at Rabin Square

It had been a mistake, she now realizes, to cover the demonstrations without taking along the gear that she keeps on hand for use hostile environments.

When it all began, she didn’t think such measures were needed, even though she could tell something unusual was happening. “When I watched the protests on the news in Jerusalem on Sunday, I was stunned to see things I usually associate with the West Bank happening in Jerusalem. When they said it wasn’t over and were doing it again in Tel Aviv, I knew I would cover it.”

As she prepared to join her photographer at the Ayalon Freeway - she was late because her 13-year-old son had a doctor’s appointment - which the protesters planned to shut down, “It did flash through my head that maybe I should take gear with me. It’s a debate I have when I go to a demonstration in the West Bank and don’t know whether they will be firing rubber bullets and tear gas." In those cases, she usually takes full equipment with her - though dragging along a helmet, gas mask and other gear can be heavy and cumbersome.”

Stephanie Fried, reporting for CCTV from Jerusalem (Screengrab)

In this case, she now realizes that “I underestimated the situation on both sides. I didn’t expect the protesters to be throwing glass bottles. And I certainly didn’t expect Israeli police to throw stun grenades in the air. When the army in the West Bank uses stun grenades or tear gas canisters, they throw them downwards, at your feet.”

She said that the police, at that early stage, were indeed restrained and the large crowd was restrained, too. “Every time the crowd swelled and pushed into a police position, the police stepped back. I knew there was a lot of restraint going on there - after all, these people were blocking rush hour traffic on a major thoroughfare.”

At 7 P.M., when she had to file her first story, she sat down in the middle of the highway and wrote. Then she went up to the Azrielli Tower and interviewed the district police commander Yoram Ohayon. Ohayon spoke of wanting to keep things peaceful ,“But when I asked him where the police’s red line was and when they would begin using force, he was really vague with me. And as we were talking, I saw water cannons being prepared, and riot police getting ready, which signaled to me that something was in store. There was a conflict between what he was saying and what they were preparing for.”

By 8 P.M., word was out that the protestors were storming City Hall next to Rabin Square. By the time they got there, it had already happened but “you could feel it in the air that it wasn’t over.”

For a time, the police resisted direct provocation on the part of protesters, some of them yelling the faces of the police “centimeters away” and “I also noticed that many were drinking - drunk and angry.” It’s the kind of thing, she said, “that nobody in the Ukraine would dare pull with the Russian police.” At the same time, she said, the protest leaders were trying to talk the provocateurs back with megaphones and microphones telling them not to be violent and to move away from City Hall.

Suddenly, then, “All hell broke loose. It was clear an order had been given and the police had been throwing stun grenades. For us it was no big deal - we know from experience that stun grenades are harmless. But the crowd thought this was live ammunition being fired and they and they started running. We ran together with the police, behind them, and behind us - a back-up unit of police. I saw a bottle come down, thrown by the protestors, and the next thing that knew, there was a stun grenade thrown, from the back-up unit or from above and I got hit in the head with it. I heard the bang, and then everything went pear-shaped and I lost all sense of time and space.” The purpose of stun grenades is for their 170 decibel sound to affect the balance in the liquid of the ears of the demonstrators, putting them off guard and easier to control - but they are designed to detonate on the ground, not on a journalist’s skull.

After she was hit, she recalls, “They put me next to the Channel 2 television vehicle and I was treated by medical guys - the bothersome part was that while they were treating me, the police kept throwing more stun grenades near us. The medical guys got angry - they were screaming at the cops because it felt as if they were throwing them towards us on purpose.”

The only thing that mitigates blaming herself for being “so dumb not to bring a helmet” is the fact that other journalists were similarly nonchalant and suffered injuries as a result.

As a long-time observer of much harsher police and military regimes, her assessment of the behavior of the police is mixed. “I do believe there was a lot of restraint by police until the protesters began throwing bottles. I’d like to know what their protocol is on projectiles into a crowd, which is where there was a real problem. You are supposed to throw tear gas canisters and stun grenades at the ground, not into crowds. I would question how they use their tools. I don’t expect a trained military or police force to throw things at people’s heads.”

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