The Tel Aviv Magistrate’s Court on Tuesday ordered the Justice Ministry’s police misconduct unit to open an investigation into the violent arrest of two Eritrean asylum seekers in south Tel Aviv the evening before, which was caught on video. The police claim that the suspects had attacked police officers at the scene first and that the initial part of the confrontation was not caught on film.
This comes days after Amir Ohana, who previously headed the justice ministry and has now taken over the public security ministry, with responsibility over the police, made an effusive visit to anti-asylum seeker activists in the same neighborhood. During the visit, he promised to address their concerns, one of which is perceived police "softness" with asylum seekers.
At a hearing on Tuesday following a police request to extend the two Eritreans’ detention, Judge Roy Peri expressed what he described as “discomfort at the sequence of events” after watching the video, which he said showed “a policeman striking a man lying on the ground, who, it seems, was not endangering anyone.”
Police prosecutor Doron Cohen qualified the police officer’s action as “a soft hit.” Judge Peri declined the request to extend the Eritreans’ detention and instead ordered them confined to house arrest.
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The south Tel Aviv neighborhood of Neve Shaanan is home to a significant number of Eritrean asylum seekers. Since last weekend, the police have boosted their presence in the neighborhood to coincide with Sunday’s observance of Eritrean independence day, which in prior years led to violent incidents.
On Monday at about 10:30 P.M., as four asylum seekers sat outside a grocery store drinking, four officers from a police special forces unit arrived. They demanded that the four leave the scene and spilled their drinks onto the street.
Haaretz obtained footage of the event, including some from security cameras, that appears to show a physical confrontation between the four men and the officers, who were not wearing body cameras. The police are seen wrestling two of the four Eritreans to the ground, and in one clip, a policeman is seen hitting one of them after he was restrained.
Neighbors and other police officers began to gather at the scene and a commotion developed. Police sources said that the suspects had attacked the officers. According to them, the confrontation erupted after the officers asked the suspects to turn off loud music and after one of the suspects attempted to flee.
The police characterized the incident as “very serious” and said that in the course of the confrontation, bottles were thrown at the police, which also broke a police cruiser’s window. The police arrested four suspects but released one of them that evening after it became clear that he had not been involved. A second suspect was released on Tuesday.
A woman identified as Imbaba, who lives above the grocery store and is the wife of one of the detainees, told Haaretz that the police asked the suspects to spill out their beer. She said her husband replied that it was not even 11 P.M., after which she said the policeman said: “It doesn’t matter. Go home.”
“All of a sudden the policeman hit him and asked him to take his bicycle and go home,” she said. “My husband asked him why he was hitting him and then another policeman came, choked him from behind and threw him to the ground.”
She said that even though she had a baby on her back, she was pushed by the police when she tried to lift her husband off the ground. “I fell to my knees and then one of the employees at the store came to help me with the baby,” she said.
A neighbor, Zizo Abu al-Hawa, who said he witnessed the incident, added: “They dragged them on the ground like rags. [The suspects] didn’t resist and didn’t do anything. I tried to separate them, and one of the policemen pushed me and broke my glasses. I felt kicks.”
The two suspects still in custody arrived in court on Tuesday in restraints, chained to one another by their legs, in violation of police regulations. Judge Peri admonished the police and asked that the restraints on their legs be removed.
The judge initially ordered the two released to a location outside Tel Aviv, but because no location was found, they remained in jail overnight Tuesday. “The court cannot make a hard and fast decision regarding the defense lawyers’ claims of violence on the part of the police at the scene,” the judge stated, but he ordered the Justice Ministry’s police misconduct unit to investigate the incident.
“If there is one thing that I agree with the police about, it’s that this is a serious case,” said Alon Ben-Ziv, a lawyer from the Public Defender’s Office who represents one of the suspects. “The video that shows the beginning of the incident runs totally counter to the factual description of the policemen who were involved in the incident. We can deduce from the video how easy it is to find ordinary people with no prior offences injured by severe and unrestrained violence.”
At Tuesday’s hearing, Sharon Hazut, a lawyer from the Public Defender’s Office who represents the other suspect, said “fortunately this is documented [on film]. There are instances in which there is no footage and they are simply not believed. The videos are very disturbing.”
Israel Police issued a statement regarding the incident in which it said that the video footage only related to a portion of the incident and did not include the beginning. “Contrary to what has been claimed, on a routine patrol of the area, the policemen saw the suspects drinking alcohol in public and asked them to identify themselves. The suspects refused to obey the policemen’s orders, tried to flee, caused serious damage to the patrol car and also attacked the officers. Following the conduct of the suspects, some of whom were under the influence of alcohol, the police had no choice but to call for additional police reinforcements and the suspects were arrested. We view any attempt to harm police officers who are in the course of enforcing the law with seriousness and will work to have [the suspects] brought to justice accordingly.”
Last week, Public Security Minister Ohana promised activists fighting to deport African asylum seekers living in Tel Aviv that he would do his utmost to address their concerns. They claim that police enforcement in their neighborhood has been lax in the last few years. The lives of neighborhood residents, “have become even more difficult in recent years because of the concentration of infiltrators in the area,” he said, using activist parlance for asylum seekers that was widely adopted by Israel’s governmet.
One of the movement’s leading figures, Sheffi Paz, posted a video on social media showing Ohana bringing her in for a hug. The minister, a Netanyahu ally, was welcomed with chants of “look who’s come to see us” and “Neve Shaanan is seeing new times.” Sheffi Paz has been indicted twice for spraying graffiti on buildings, including a representative office of the European Union.
“The fact that Ohana came here on his first day speaks for itself. We were invisible to [former Interior Security Minister Gilad] Erdan and I hope that this is a new beginning where the police won’t regard us as the enemy but as partners,” Doron Abrahami, one of the activists, said.