Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu pledged to eradicate racism and police violence Monday, following a wave of sometimes violent protests among Ethiopian Israelis sparked by a video showing police assaulting an IDF soldier from the community last week.
Netanyahu, speaking in the Knesset after meeting with the assaulted soldier and community leaders, said that the protests were indicative of a deeper rift within Israeli society that deserved more attention and state resources.
“It is our duty to fight racism and discrimination in any way possible,” Netanyahu said, before adding that all Israelis “have duties as well as rights, and must refrain from violence.
“It should be understood that Israelis of Ethiopian origin are Israelis in every respect,” he added.
The prime minister said that he was committed to fighting racism and discrimination and pledged to eradicate police violence.
Netanyahu’s statement came a day after a rally in Tel Aviv erupted into a chaotic street battle that left 65 people injured, among both police and protesters, and led to 43 arrests.
Police were set to remand 19 into custody on Monday. Last Thursday, in Jerusalem, a similar protest also devolved into a melee, though the scenes in Tel Aviv were far more grave.
Earlier on Monday, Netanyahu met with Damas Pakada, the Ethiopian-born Israeli soldier whose brutal assault by police was captured in an amateur video and published last week.
The incident became a rallying cry for members of the Ethiopian-Israeli community, who allege ongoing institutional discrimination and racism against them.
Netanyahu’s office said after the meeting that the prime minister would have a plan drawn up to battle racism, which would be taken to the ministerial cabinet for a vote.
The statement said an ad-hoc committee would be created to monitor implementation of the plan.
“We must all line up against racism, condemn it and work to eradicate it. The ministerial committee that I will chair will advance plans to resolve problems in education, housing, culture, religion, employment and in other areas,” added Netanyahu.
The prime minister praised Pakada and said he was shocked by the video of the beating.
“You are an exemplary soldier and you are an example to others; this includes the fact that you called for a halt to the violence. We cannot accept inflammatory rhetoric, racism, looking down on people and the beating of an IDF soldier,” Netanyahu told Pakada during the meeting.
Internal Security Minister Yitzhak Aharonovitch and Israel Police chief Yohanan Danino also attended the meeting.
“The police will do what must be done to fix itself but we must also fix Israeli society because we love you. We love the Ethiopian community and all Israelis are in this together,” Netanyahu said at the meeting, according to a statement from his office.
“There is a deep problem here that needs to be resolved. This outburst is a result of genuine distress. We will fight this together. Much work remains to be done, but this is the right direction. I am very happy to see you here. You are simply an example,” he continued.
Pakada said afterwards that he was pleased that Netanyahu had met with him and shown how seriously he took the issue.
More than 135,000 Ethiopian Jews live in Israel, having immigrated in two waves in 1984 and 1991. But they have struggled to integrate into Israeli society among lingering accusations of institutional discrimination.
Other top officials also admitted missteps in Israel’s treatment of the minority.
President Reuven Rivlin admitted Israel had made errors, describing the suffering of the Ethiopian community as “an open and raw wound at the heart of Israeli society.
“We have made mistakes. We did not look, we did not listen enough,” he said.
Earlier on Monday, Pakada called for an end to the violence. Community leaders also condemned the violence, but called for protests to continue.
Fentahun Assefa-Dawit, head of the advocacy organization Tebeka, met with Netanyahu over the community’s grievances and said authorities needed to make changes.
“These demonstrations should bring the responsible authorities to their senses so they realize… there is a problem: There are discrimination and racism issues in Israel,” he claimed.
Assefa-Dawit said the protests expressed the “deep pain” felt by a community that had suffered from years of police brutality.
“Although there has been police violence against the Ethiopian community for many years… it was very, very difficult to prove,” he told reporters before meeting with Netanyahu.
“That footage has changed the whole thing.”
In Kenya, US Secretary of State John Kerry said Monday he was confident Israel would investigate the violence.
“I’m confident that Israeli leadership will work this through in a way that honors the goals and aspirations and traditions and values of the people of Israel,” Kerry told reporters in the Kenyan capital of Nairobi.
He said he believed the matter would be put “thoroughly under investigation.”
On Sunday, police said 56 police officers and 12 demonstrators were injured in a Tel Aviv rally that evening, most suffering light injuries.
The commander of the North Tel Aviv precinct, Chief Superintendent Nissim Daoudi, claimed that “anarchist groups” had taken advantage of the protest to clash with police.
“At some point, the demonstrators crossed a boundary that cannot be crossed in a democratic state,” he said. “The demonstrators started throwing bricks and bottles at police.”
The demonstration had begun in the afternoon, with thousands of Israeli-Ethiopians and supporters blocking the Ayalon Highway, a major north-south artery in Tel Aviv.
For over three hours, during rush hour, the highway remained blocked, with police keeping their distance to avoid provoking clashes.
After eventually leaving the highway, the demonstrators moved on to Rabin Square, a central plaza that is a popular venue for large rallies. As the evening wore on, scuffles broke out between protesters and police and the rally rapidly spiraled into a full-blown riot. For several hours police used mounted officers, tear gas, stun grenades and water cannon in an effort to dispel the crowd. Meanwhile, the demonstrators set off firecrackers, pelted police with debris, overturned a police cruiser and set fires.
At a protest last Thursday in Jerusalem, police deployed tear gas, stun grenades and water hoses. Pockets of demonstrators threw stones and bottles at police and blocked streets as well as the city’s light rail tracks as they attempted to march on the Prime Minister’s Residence.
Three police officers were injured at the protest, along with as many as 13 demonstrators. Two were arrested.
AFP contributed to this report