What started as a peaceful protest by Ethiopian Israelis on Sunday in Tel Aviv turned violent late at night as protesters and police clashed.
“There is no white. There is no black. There are just people,” demonstrators chanted in the wake of growing concern over police treatment of Ethiopian Israelis.
The clashes resulted in more than 40 arrests, 60 people wounded – as protesters threw stones, bottles and overturned a police car. Police used water, stun grenades and tear gas to disperse protesters. The scale of the clashes shocked the Israeli public and officials.
On Monday, in a Tel Aviv court remand hearing for protesters who were arrested, a police spokesman said police officers showed restraint and allowed an unauthorized demonstration to take place, according to Ynetnews. But the protesters crossed a “red line” by throwing rocks and putting people in danger – and that most of the injured were police officers, the spokesman added.
What triggered this?
Tensions have been growing since a security-camera video emerged in late April showing police officers beating a uniformed Ethiopian Israeli soldier in the city of Holon, outside Tel Aviv. Damas Pakada can be seen holding his bicycle in the video when a police officer approaches him and tries to move him away. Seconds later, the situation turns violent.
In the wake of the video’s release, more than 1,000 Ethiopian Israelis held demonstrations in Jerusalem outside the national police headquarters, chanting “Police state! Stop the violence, stop the racism!” The Jerusalem Post reported. Those demonstrations were largely peaceful compared with the protests three days later in Tel Aviv.
Protesters want Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to take strong action and they want the police officer involved in the videotaped incident imprisoned.
The Baltimore connection
The echoes of Baltimore – where police and protesters have clashed over the death of a black man – have made the rounds in Israeli media.
“Bibi, you had better not let Baltimore reach Israel,” read one protester’s sign on Sunday night, according to Channel 10 TV.
“The similarity between the incidents there and in Israel should prompt us – Israeli citizens, our security forces and our leaders – to ask what is going on with the police and the Ethiopian-Israeli community,” wrote Don Futterman in Haaretz. Mr. Haaretz runs a private American foundation that works on behalf of the Ethiopian Israeli community.
But the references to Baltimore have not been entirely embraced by protesters. “The fact that we’re black doesn’t mean that we’re Baltimore,” said one of the organizers ahead of Sunday’s Tel Aviv protest.
Ethiopians in Israel: A primer
Of Israel’s eight million people, Ethiopian Jews represent a small segment of about 135,000. But the story of their arrival – and the role of the Israeli government in making it happen – is a fascinating chapter in the country’s history.
Operation Moses involved the clandestine airlifting of Ethiopian Jews beginning in 1984 from Sudan to Israel. Ethiopian Jews, who trace their roots back 3,000 years to the early Jewish tribes of Africa, faced growing discrimination and tough economic circumstances under a drought that had struck the region. Their return – likened to a modern-day exodus – to Israel was paved by an Israeli rabbinical ruling in the 1970s recognizing them as Jews.
Most of the Ethiopian Israelis protesting against police treatment of their community members were born in Israel after waves of immigration in the 1980s and 1990s. They are more willing to push back against discrimination and racism.
The community as whole still faces daunting socioeconomic challenges. High-school completion rate among Ethiopian Israelis is 50 per cent, lower than the 63 per cent for wider Israeli society. Ethiopian Israeli households earn 35 per cent less than the national average.
On Monday, Israel’s President Reuven Rivlin acknowledged the grievances of the Ethiopian Israeli community and described it as an has “exposed an open, bleeding wound in the heart of Israeli society.”
“We must look directly at this open wound. We have erred. We did not look, and we did not listen enough,” he said.