President Reuven Rivlin expressed empathy for members of the Ethiopian community on Monday, admitting that the State of Israel had “erred” in its treatment of the group, while deploring the use of violence in recent protests against perceived discrimination and institutional racism.
At a gathering of ultra-Orthodox mayors and municipality leaders in his office, Rivlin said, “As we open this meeting, I cannot help mentioning the terrible images we saw… the pain, suffering, and anger that arose from the community of Israelis of Ethiopian origin — the majority of whom were born and grew up here in Israel.”
Rivlin’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 in custody on Monday. Last Thursday, in Jerusalem, a similar protest also devolved into a melee.
The president said those protests “uncovered an open and raw wound at the heart of Israeli society: the pain of a community crying out over a sense of discrimination, racism, and lack of response.
“We must look directly at this open wound,” he said. “We have erred. We did not look, and we did not listen enough. Among the protesters on the streets are some of our finest sons and daughters: outstanding students, soldiers who served in the army. We owe them answers.”
However, Rivlin cautioned, “it must be stated unequivocally that while protests are an essential tool in democracy, violence is neither the way nor the solution… We are not strangers to one another. We are brothers, and we must not deteriorate into a place we will all regret.”
The protests were sparked after an amateur video published last week showed two policemen pummeling Damas Pakada, an Ethiopian-born Israeli soldier in the IDF, in an apparently unprovoked attack. Pakada was in uniform at the time. The incident became a rallying cry for members of the Ethiopian-Israeli community, who allege ongoing institutional discrimination and racism against them.
Pakada met on Monday morning with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. “I heard that you were an outstanding student at the youth village, that you do volunteer work on weekends,” Netanyahu said during the meeting, Channel 2 reported. “I am very glad to see you here, and I would like to tell you that I was shocked by what happened. We cannot accept this. The police are handling it, and we need to change things. I also heard that you are against the use of violence, and that is a the statement of a leader. Maybe good things will come of the harsh experience that you went through.” Earlier in the day, Pakada called for an end to the violence.
Police closed streets around the Prime Minister’s Office for a march held by the Ethiopian community on Monday. Police officials called on the public not to go to the government complex in Jerusalem where the demonstration was to take place and to use alternate routes. They also called upon Ethiopian community leaders and those attending the protest to show restraint and responsibility and obey police officers’ instructions.
Police officials warned that if the demonstrators behaved violently, crowd-dispersal methods would be deployed.
Police said 56 police officers and 12 demonstrators were injured in the Tel Aviv rally on Sunday night, most suffering light injuries. Twenty-five people were treated at Ichilov Hospital in Tel Aviv, and all but four were later released: one person was still being treated for brain hemorrhaging and three others were being kept for observation. A further 18 were treated at the Wolfson Medical Center, 10 at the Rabin Medical Center and eight at the Sheba Medical Center.
Many of the injured made their own way to the hospitals, as ambulances struggled to operate due to the chaos at the scene. Most of the casualties suffered from head and limb injuries. Some were injured by stun grenades or tear gas inhalation, and others in direct clashes with riot police, who were assaulted with rocks and other objects.
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 seeking to highlight police brutality against members of Israel’s Ethiopian community, 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.
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.
Stuart Winer and AFP contributed to this report.