Ethiopian Israelis Twice as Likely to Be Arrested, Police Stats Show

'For years we’ve been crying out over the police’s racist treatment toward us because of our skin color, which turns us into the immediate suspects. Now we have figures to back it up.'

Tomer Appelbaum

Investigations into alleged assaults on police officers by Israelis of Ethiopian origin doubled over the last eight years, although the overall number of cases has not risen proportionally, according to police statistics.

In 2007, six percent of the investigations into Jews who assaulted police officers involved ethnic Ethiopians – 360 files out 5,785 – though the community constituted only two percent of the population. By 2015, that number had risen to 12 percent (750 out of 5,800,) six times higher than the community’s proportion in the population.

The figures were disclosed by the police under a Freedom of Information Law request by the Israel Association for Ethiopian Jews. Previously, the police had refused to disclose the information to the community outreach organization, which maintains that police treatment of Ethiopians is racist and based on the color of their skin.

A young man of Ethiopian origin left his work place in Jerusalem one evening and took the train to his home town, Netanya. On alighting from the train, he was arrested by a group of policemen and detained on suspicion of breaking into a car. The man was held at the police station until late at night before being released.

“This didn’t happen once, but twice,” said Ziva Mekonen-Dagu, the head of the association for Ethiopian Jews.”He was arrested twice for something he didn’t do. Why? Because he’s black.”

“His nephew was also arrested near his home in Nahariya,” Mekonen-Dagu added. “A police car stopped beside him and he was asked what he was doing there. Why? Because it was a good neighborhood and it didn’t make sense that someone from Ethiopia would live there.”

“Every mother from Ethiopia is afraid for her children when they’re out late. For years we’ve been crying out over the police’s racist treatment toward us because of our skin color, which turns us into the immediate suspects. Now we have figures to back it up,” she said.

Mekonen-Dagu claimed that police open assault files in all cases of unjustified arrest. That includes cases in which people who were assaulted by the police tried to defend themselves.

The police have recently made efforts to restore the trust between the force and the Ethiopian community. A committee recommended last November that Amharic-speaking telephonists be employed on police hotlines 24-hours-a-day. It also recommended enlisting more Ethiopian community members to the Israel Defense Forces and increasing the number of police officers from the community.

Hundreds of demonstrators from the Ethiopian community took to the streets of Tel Aviv and Jerusalem last May to protest what they said was discrimination and racism against them. The demonstrations were sparked by the arrest of a soldier, Damas Pakada, after video footage showed him being beaten by two policemen. Twenty-eight protesters were arrested, but only four were indicted for violence and assaulting policemen.

Mekonen-Dagu said the protest did not begin because of Pakada’s case. “The Ethiopian community started protesting because that’s what every Ethiopian Israeli experiences every day and every hour. We are discriminated against on a regular basis,” she said.

The association has broken down the figures provided by the police by city. Apparently, the number of indictments corresponded with the proportion of Ethiopian Jews in the general population in most northern cities, while it was several times higher in southern and central cities.

In Gedera, for example, 40 percent of police investigations were opened against Israelis of Ethiopian origin, although they comprise only six percent of the population. In Rehovot and Kiryat Malachi, the indictments against Ethiopian Israelis were 33 percent and 40 percent respectively, while they comprise 5.4 and 16.4 percent of the population, respectively.

In Tel Aviv, Ethiopian Israelis make up only 0.6 percent of the population, but 7.7 percent of the investigations opened for assaulting policemen were against them. In contrast, in the town of Sderot, the rate of investigations is 3.8 percent, close to their 2.5 percent proportion in the general population. Similar figures were registered in Safed, Kiryat Ata, Nahariya and Migdal Ha’emek.

In a bid to examine the police’s treatment of Ethiopian Jews, the State Control Committee recently held several debates regarding the case of Yosef Salamsa, 22, whose body was found near Binyamina in 2014. His relatives have accused policemen of being involved in his death.

Salamsa was arrested in April 2014 on suspicion of wielding a knife and trying to break into a building. The police used a taser gun to stun him. His father later reported finding him lying injured on the ground outside the Zichron Yaakov police station, his hands and feet cuffed. No charges were filed against him. The family said he had been injured and needed hospital and psychological treatment after the incident.

In February this year, the Justice Ministry department for the investigation of police officers closed the investigation against the two policemen who had tasered Salamsa and left him outside the police station.

Committee chairwoman MK Karin Elharar (Yesh Atid) said the police figures suggest that if you’re an Israeli of Ethiopian origin, you’re twice as likely to be arrested than anyone else. In 2014, 2,044 Israelis of Ethiopian origin were arrested, but the court extended the remand of only 388 of them.