Several dozen people marched from Zichron Yaakov to Jerusalem last week to remind the public of the late Yosef Salamseh, a 22-year-old Ethiopian Jew from Binyamina who died in July. Supporters claim he was the victim of police brutality and that his family was threatened by police when they called for an investigation. The police deny these charges.
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Is Yosef Salamseh an Israeli Michael Brown – the victim of police brutality and a subsequent cover-up?
The young man was in a public park in Binyamina with friends on March 1, when police approached him and accused him of having broken into a house, according to Walla! news. When Salamseh denied the accusation, the officers reportedly fired a Taser gun at him, kicked him, handcuffed him, shackled his legs, threw him in the police van, and took him to the police station in nearby Zichron Yaakov.
His sister Ilanit and cousin Tehune Sarah Maharat said his friends called his parents, who rushed to the station to find their son unconscious on the ground in the police parking lot, still cuffed and shackled. He had been lying there for 40 minutes, Maharat said, adding that his mother thought he was dead.
Yosef was taken to the hospital and released following treatment for his injuries. No charges were filed against him and he was never arrested or questioned again, Maharat told me, adding that he had no criminal record.
For several weeks after the incident, Yosef was depressed, Ilanit told me. The oldest of eight siblings, Ilanit said, "We all encouraged him not to give in to the humiliation he had suffered, and get on with his life.
The family filed a request via a lawyer to the Justice Ministry’s department for the investigation of police officers to investigate the abuse of their son, Walla! reported. Several family members told me that the police then came to the Salamseh's family home under the premise that they were looking for the young man, and threatened his parents that they would to return with a dozen officers to turn the place upside down unless the family withdrew its request. “The police persecuted these people,” Maharat told me of her aunt and uncle in a phone call, her voice shaking with fury. The police denied these charges.
Salamseh finally returned to work four months after the incident, in July, but on his second day back, went missing, his sister said. His body was found two days later in the Binyamina quarry and was taken to the Abu Kabir Institute of Forensic Medicine. The family, however, says they did not receive the report and were not allowed to see Yosef’s body.
To date, almost six months after his death, the family claims it never received a satisfactory explanation of how Yosef died. They say the police claim he committed suicide, but the family does not believe that after finally returning to his routine he would have taken his own life.
On the Facebook page established in Salamseh's memory, friends and family express certainty that his alleged suicide was a direct result of police brutality; that he was humiliated by the tasing, and that the alleged harassment of his parents pushed him over the edge. Family members made it clear to me that they are not accusing the police of killing Salamseh, but a source close to the family said that the suspicion still haunts them.
The family says the police used Yosef's death as an excuse to close the department's investigation into brutality, but the police deny this. A statement from the police spokesman for the coastal region, Eran Shaked, said the officers behaved "professionally, impartially and in good faith" when dealing with Salamseh. The police added that the family's attempts to negatively portray the officers' actions distorts the facts and truth.
The case of Yosef Salamseh remains unclear. Was he the victim of police brutality and a cover-up and his family a victim of police intimidation? Or is he the subject of a tragedy marked by misunderstandings, suspicions and mistrust among members of a minority community?
Ziva Mekonnen, director of the Israel Association for Ethiopian Jews, said that since the Salamseh case, numerous Ethiopian families have contacted her alleging acts of police brutality. In light of this, and even notwithstanding, the story of Yosef Salamseh must be investigated with speed and transparency.
The police must determine whether or not one or more crimes were committed by officers of the law. If the police were at fault, they must be brought to justice. If they did nothing wrong, a plausible explanation of what happened must be provided to Salamseh's family and the Ethiopian-Israeli community. In either case, racial profiling and harassment must be stopped before mistrust of the Israel Police becomes endemic among Ethiopian-Israeli citizens.
The police force is failing to fulfill its duty toward the citizens of the state. With such serious allegations, why has the higher brass of the police department not directly intervened or made more of an effort to communicate with the Salamseh family? Why has the family not seen the department's report on the internal police investigation? Most importantly, would this have played out differently were Salamseh not of Ethiopian origin?
Don Futterman is the program director for Israel of the Moriah Fund, a private American foundation which supports the Israel Association of Ethiopian Jews, and numerous other organizations to promote the empowerment and integration of Ethiopian Jews in Israel. He can be heard weekly on TLV1’s The Promised Podcast.