Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan on Thursday paid a condolence visit to the family of an Ethiopian-Israeli teenager who was shot dead by police, sparking widespread protests this week, and said the entire nation was grieving with them.
“Millions of citizens are sharing your grief,” Erdan told the parents of Solomon Tekah, 19, who was killed in Haifa on Sunday. “What happened with Solomon is sad and tragic, and I hope this is the last [such] case.
“No words can truly comfort you, but you should know that your pain and the pain over what happened to Solomon is the pain of us all,” he added, expressing condolences on his behalf and on behalf of the government.
Since Monday, protesters across Israel have blocked roads, burned tires and denounced what they say is systemic discrimination against the Ethiopian-Israeli community, after an off-duty police officer fatally shot Tekah. The demonstrations escalated after the funeral on Tuesday, and some protesters set vehicles on fire, overturned a police car and clashed with officers and others who tried to break through their makeshift roadblocks.
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According to police, more than 110 officers were wounded in the clashes, including from stones and bottles hurled at them, and 136 protesters had been arrested for rioting.
Three teenagers were arrested Wednesday in Rishon Lezion after they were found to be carrying Molotov cocktails. A nearby stash of firebombs was also discovered. On Thursday, two 17-year-old boys were arrested on suspicion that they had thrown Molotov cocktails at a police station in Beer Yaakov, causing no injuries.
מהמשטרה נמסר כי לפנות בוקר מפגינים יידו בקבוקי תבערה לעבר תחנת המשטרה בבאר יעקב. שני חשודים בני 17 נעצרו, ולפי המשטרה כ-20 מתפרעים ניסו למנוע את מעצרם של החשודים. לא היו נפגעים באירוע, והחשודים יובאו היום לדיון בהארכת מעצרם@daniel_elazar (צילום: דוברות המשטרה) pic.twitter.com/mnguxjYIIz
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Earlier Thursday, Erdan called for a reform in the body in charge of investigating police brutality in Israel, citing a “total lack of trust” by Ethiopian-Israelis in its operations.
The Police Internal Investigations Department (PIID) is part of the Justice Ministry and is in charge of investigations against police officers accused of violence and other wrongdoing.
The wave of protests was sparked in part by the PIID’s decision to release the officer who shot Tekah to house arrest shortly after the investigation began, a move widely viewed by Ethiopian-Israelis as downplaying the severity of his actions and another example of officers getting away with using excessive force against members of their community.
“There definitely needs to be an examination of how we can change the PIID’s model,” Erdan told Army Radio on Thursday, adding that he had expressed that view at a Knesset ministerial committee meeting this week headed by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and in meetings with leaders of the Ethiopian community.
“There is a total lack of trust in PIID’s investigations. I believe members of the [Ethiopian-Israeli] community when they say there are sometimes mistakes and failures in the conduct of police officers … and that some PIID probes are not investigated in depth or aren’t effective,” Erdan said.
“It can’t be that everyone who spoke with us in recent days has made it up,” he added. “This necessitates a government inspection of the PIID’s effectiveness and public trust in its investigations.”
One of the criticisms is that the PIID doesn’t have enough manpower to check all the complaints against officers, Erdan said. Another is that for many years, its members have been mainly police officers, who could freely leave PIID at any time and return to the police force.
He acknowledged the feeling of discrimination expressed by Ethiopian-Israelis, and admitted that racism against them exists in Israeli society and shouldn’t be ignored or covered up.
However, Erdan throughout the interview defended the police against accusations that it had failed to appropriately deal with the protests, failed to open roads even after several hours and did not do enough to prevent the widespread violence. He said stricter action against the protesters would have only caused more accusations of police brutality.
He also touted reforms in recent years designed to minimize officers misusing their power, such as forcing them to wear bodycams.
Erdan said the protests had lost legitimacy and public trust when they went violent.
“When you throw Molotov cocktails, when you burn cars and police stations, when you throw large rocks at police officers and rescue forces, that is when you lose legitimacy because that is anarchy.”
Erdan said his ministry and police had tried to calm the tension through dialogue with community leaders, but that those efforts failed since the protests weren’t driven by top-down decisions but rather “social media calls, sometimes incitement.”
He said the scope of the protests was the biggest in Israel in many years, as was the level of violence.
The protests have served to highlight complaints in the Ethiopian-Israeli community of systemic discrimination against them by authorities. Community organizers say government reforms promised after similar protests in 2015 have yet to be implemented.
Convening a ministerial panel created after the 2015 protests meant to address complaints in the Ethiopian community, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Wednesday that Tekah’s death was a tragedy, but violent demonstrations would not be tolerated.
“We cannot see the violent blocking of roads. We cannot see firebombs, and attacks on police officers, citizens and private property. This is inconceivable and the police are deployed accordingly to prevent this,” he said in a statement.
The Ethiopian Jews, who trace their lineage to the ancient Israelite tribe of Dan, began arriving in large numbers in the 1980s, when Israel secretly airlifted them to the Holy Land to save them from war and famine in the Horn of Africa.
The new arrivals struggled as they made the transition from a rural, developing African country into an increasingly high-tech Israel. Over time, many have integrated more into Israeli society, serving in the military and police and making inroads in politics, sports and entertainment. Israel has touted their success as proof of the country’s acceptance and diversity.
But the community continues to suffer from widespread poverty, and many in the Ethiopian Israelis complain of racism, lack of opportunity and routine police harassment.
AP contributed to this report.