The attorney general is weighing re-opening a case against a police officer filmed beating up an Israeli soldier of Ethiopian descent last year and fired from his job but never prosecuted.
The incident reawakened anger in the Ethiopian community over perceived institutional discrimination and racism and touched off a string of rallies and riots in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem against police brutality.
Damas Pakada, then 21 — an orphan who emigrated from Ethiopia with his four siblings several years before — was riding his bicycle when he noticed two officers cordoning off a street in Holon, near Tel Aviv, because of a suspicious object.
Pakada said that he asked them what they were up to and one of them confronted him and pushed him off his bike, saying, “I can do whatever I want.”
The officer threatened to shoot him in the head, and they only let up only after he backed away and lifted a rock, Pakada claimed.
“The cop told me, ‘I’m doing my job and if I need to put a bullet in your head, I would do it. I am proud of my job,’” Pakada told the Ynet news site at the time.
Several police then detained the soldier for alleged assault, although the footage showed that Pakada did not attack them with the rock in his hand.
After the footage was obtained by Pakada’s family, he was released from custody, with police promising to investigate the matter.
In June, then-attorney general Yehuda Weinstein decided that the police officer would not be tried and that it was Pakada who had initiated the incident. Weinstein also cleared the officer of racist motives for his actions.
Weinstein’s decision came after both the state prosecutor and the Police Internal Investigations Department had recommended that charges against the policeman be dropped.
The Justice Ministry said in a statement that the fight began after the uniformed soldier attacked the policeman.
“From the evidence in the case…it was apparent that after the policeman repeatedly asked the soldier to leave the premises because of the nearby suspicious object, and the soldier refused to do so and pushed the policeman, the policeman applied force to distance the soldier from the place,” the statement said. “In response, the soldier punched the policeman and the policeman hit him in return.”
But on Monday, Mandelblit said in statement to the government that a review of the facts had thrown up “certain inaccuracies” in the way the sequence of events had been described in the decision reached by Weinstein, Channel 2 News reported.
Pakada’s attorney Eyal Abulafia told the news channel that reopening the case would be “right and just.”
“From the start, we claimed that the person who started the attack and who attacked was the policeman and not the soldier. We are pleased that the current attorney general understood and correctly read our arguments, unlike the previous attorney general Weinstein, and we welcome the decision.”
Tebeka (Amharic for “Advocate of Justice”), a legal aid society for Israelis of Ethiopian descent, welcomed “the decision to hold a hearing for one of the police officers involved who behaved with violence, without any obvious reason, towards the soldier. We hope this decision will finally lead to justice.”
“The attorney general summoned us to present our position to him,” said lawyer Efrat Nahmani, who is representing the policeman. “We have no doubt that after he has seen the full picture, the case will not be reopened. The previous attorney general’s decision is the only acceptable one.”
The protests sparked last year by the original incident included one in Tel Aviv in May in Rabin Square which turned violent as protesters hurled rocks at police and officers responded with stun grenades and water cannon. The melee left 65 people injured, among both police and protesters, and led to 43 arrests.
The day after, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu invited Pakada for a meeting and pledged to eradicate racism and police violence.
“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.
More than 135,000 Ethiopian Jews live in Israel, having immigrated in two waves in 1984 and 1991. But many have struggled to integrate into Israeli society among lingering accusations of institutional discrimination.
President Reuven Rivlin admitted during the protests that 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.