Thousands of Israelis protested against alleged police brutality and rampant discrimination towards the Ethiopian-Israeli community at a demonstration in Tel Aviv Wednesday evening, called after a young Ethiopian Jew was shot dead by a cop earlier this month.
The rally at Rabin Square, which followed a march that shuttered major thoroughfares and junctions, turned violent when a few dozen of the protesters began a vandalism spree down Ibn Gabirol Boulevard.
Police described the rioters as a “a small minority” and said six police officers had been lightly wounded trying to quell the disturbances. Eleven of the protesters were arrested.
The group broke away from the main demonstration and began running down the street, outside the area cordoned off by police for the protest.
They were mostly young men, many with their faces covered. They began accosting drivers and passersby on the sidewalk and on mopeds, knocking over parked motorcycles and damaging parked cars while shouting slogans against the police.
The protesters trashed at least one sidewalk cafe, overturning tables and chairs, throwing them against the cafe’s windows, and arguing with patrons. Several demonstrators assaulted at least one journalist at the scene. The group made its way into a residential area of north Tel Aviv, with organizers of the main event in pursuit, trying to rein them in.
The bulk of the protest remained nonviolent, however, and began to disperse after 9 p.m.
Acting police chief Motti Cohen praised the peaceful nature of the vast majority of the marchers and vowed to work to improve relations between law enforcement and the Ethiopian community.
“Unfortunately at the end of the demonstration a small minority chose the path of violence and vandalism, but their unruly behavior did not detract from the impressive achievement of the respectful and powerful protest of an entire community,” Cohen said.
“The Israel Police will continue efforts to strengthen the cooperation with members of the Ethiopian community to improve their trust in the police,” he said.
Earlier in the afternoon, about 1,000 protesters had marched onto the major highways running through Israel’s commercial hub, including the Ayalon Highway at the Hashalom interchange, stopping traffic for several hours and causing major jams that stretched into neighboring towns.
The protest was called amid mounting anger after a police officer shot and killed Yehuda Biadga, a 24-year-old resident of Bat Yam, on January 18.
Police said the officer acted in self-defense, accusing Biadga of charging the officer with a knife. He denied Biadga’s race was a factor in the decision to open fire. Biadga’s supporters say he did not threaten the officer.
The Justice Ministry’s Police Internal Investigations Department — an outside agency that investigates and prosecutes officers — has launched an investigation, and the officer was placed on leave for the duration of the inquiry.
But protesters on Wednesday demanded a higher-level commission of inquiry headed by a judge.
The demonstration Wednesday had a police permit — though the permit did not include permission to block the Ayalon freeway.
Marchers began at Tel Aviv’s Azrieli Center complex and set off toward Rabin Square.
Police securing the event were instructed to show restraint.
Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan said he had ordered that all police assigned to the protest be equipped with body cameras. The announcement came after Tebeka, a nonprofit organization providing legal support for the Ethiopian-Israeli community, urged he take the measure “in order to prevent the next unnecessary violent incident,” Hadashot TV news reported.
Last week, Erdan launched a project to equip all police in the Tel Aviv region with body cameras, equipment which is not yet standard issue in the Israel Police.
More than 135,000 Ethiopian Jews live in Israel, most of them having immigrated in two waves in 1984 and 1991. But many have struggled to integrate into Israeli society and there are lingering accusations of discrimination.
Community leaders and others have said there is a pattern of racism and abuse by police toward Ethiopian-Israelis, despite promises to root out the problem.
In 2015, a large demonstration in support of the Ethiopian community against police brutality and racism turned violent, transforming the Tel Aviv city center into a massive street brawl. At least 41 people were injured in the hours-long melee, which saw protesters hurl rocks at police and officers respond with stun grenades and water cannons.