Police Call Ethiopian-Israeli Activists With ‘Friendly Warning’ Ahead of Demonstration

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Protesters and police clash at Tel Aviv demonstration of Ethiopian Israelis, May 3, 2015.
Protesters and police clash at Tel Aviv demonstration of Ethiopian Israelis, May 3, 2015.Credit: AFP

Police have made warning phone calls to Ethiopian-Israeli activists, ahead of a demonstration to demand the accelerated immigration of Falashmura, the descendants of Ethiopian Jews who were forcibly converted to Christianity.

“In the past, you’ve made all kinds of statements on this issue, you know,” one activist who asked that her name not be published quoted a Rehovot policeman as telling her in a phone call.

“They even questioned you in Tel Aviv, right? You want to take care of yourself,” she said she was told. 

She says he asked her about preparations for the protest scheduled in Jerusalem on Sunday, continuing to press her even after she told him she was not involved. Among other things, she said, the officer asked her how she planned to get to the capital. When she said she didn’t plan to attend and hadn’t even known about the demonstration, he replied, “What, now you’re playing innocent?” she related.

According to the woman, the conversation continued at length, with the officer asking her more questions and dismissing her claims of ignorance. She then asked how he had reached her, and whether the police had her phone number on file.

“Absolutely. Where are you headed? A criminal organization,” he responded, before explaining, “There’s no such thing as someone with a phone who doesn’t appear in the system.”

Finally, when she said she wanted to end the call, he urged her not to misinterpret it. “Look, you’re getting suspicious,” he said. “Don’t take this the wrong way.”

“He called me from an unlisted number,” she told Haaretz. “I was scared. It was a very unpleasant and stressful experience. ... I didn’t understand what he wanted from me. He was apparently trying to get information.”

Last year, she says, she was summoned for questioning over a Facebook post she wrote. The officer who interviewed her told her the post constituted incitement to violence against the police and threatened to charge her, but no prosecution followed. According to the woman, her post merely expressed solidarity with the pain of Ethiopian-Israelis.

Other activists reported similar phone calls.

“An officer from the Petah Tikva station called me,” said an activist who helps run the “Little Ethiopia” Facebook page. “He asked questions — if I know whether any of the people coming to Jerusalem plan to overturn cars or block roads. He asked how many buses are coming. I told him to ask the organizers,” said the activist, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

Like the female activist, he said he is not involved in organizing today’s demonstration. He called the phone call “illegitimate and unpleasant. You automatically think you’ve done something wrong. I don’t understand why they call people and harass them. I get a call every time there’s a protest.”

Making warning calls to activists before demonstrations of every political stripe has become common practice by the police in recent years. Sometimes the officers explicitly threaten legal action, sometimes they simply issue warnings. Occasionally, police visit activists at home before a protest.

Sharona Eliahu-Chai, a lawyer with the Association for Civil Rights in Israel, said such calls are prohibited because they infringe on a fundamental democratic right.

“These ostensibly friendly calls, which send demonstrators the message that their intent to demonstration is improper, or that it’s liable to have negative repercussions for them, have a chilling effect on demonstrations and on the right to protest, and they’re unacceptable and illegal,” Eliahu-Chai said.

“It even violates an explicit order by the police commissioner that putting pressure on demonstrators that could cause them not to carry out their plans to demonstrate is forbidden.”

Four months ago, the cabinet approved a plan to bring up to 9,000 Falashmura with relatives to Israel over the next five years. Last month the Finance Ministry refused to fund the program, citing a lack of funding.

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