A Jerusalem demonstration called to highlight police brutality against members of Israel’s Ethiopian community finally wound down late on Thursday night, after nine hours of sometimes violent confrontation that left over a dozen people injured.
Shortly after 1 a.m., the last of the several hundred protesters went home, and traffic resumed its normal flow at the entrance to the city, where several dozen demonstrators had ultimately congregated and been dispersed.
But many of the demonstrators promised that the protests were “only the beginning,” and vowed that such rallies would spread nationwide in the coming days.
“You will see these protests in every city,” a masked protester told Channel 2 TV. He explained that he chose to obscure his face to prevent the police identifying him, because “I am afraid of them. Maybe they’ll find me and beat me up when the cameras aren’t around.”
“For years we’ve been putting up with this racism, and the pressure cooker is exploding,” another Ethiopian protester told the Walla news website.
The demonstrations had raged for hours and turned violent. Hundreds of protesters blocked streets and the light rail, and marched from the police headquarters toward the prime minister’s home.
When the protesters, mostly from the Ethiopian community, tried to march on the Prime Minister’s Residence, they were kept at bay by police. Three police officers were injured by rocks and bottles thrown by the protesters in the ensuing clashes, and as many as 13 demonstrators were wounded. Two were arrested.
Police used crowd control methods to block the protesters, including tear gas, stun grenades and fire hoses.
Some of the protesters alleged that the police used excessive force.
“We were attacked for no reason,” said Matan Admake from Yavne.
Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat rushed to the scene to try to calm tempers. He attempted to reason with some of the activists. Asked to comment on the main TV news, he told a reporter, “Not now. Let’s listen to them,” referring to the protesters.
The demonstration came in the wake of video footage that emerged on Monday showing policemen beating an Ethiopian-born IDF soldier, who said later that he was the target of a racist attack.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called on the protesters to avoid violence. “I strongly condemn the beating of the soldier from the Ethiopian community and those responsible will answer for it,” he said in a statement. “But at the same time, no one should take the law into their hands. Immigrants from Ethiopia and their families are dear to us, and the State of Israel is making great efforts to ease their integration.”
As many as 1,000 protesters, mostly of Ethiopian descent, blocked traffic and the light rail train on Route 1, one of the capital’s busiest arteries, while chanting against violence and racism, as the protest got under way in the afternoon.
Mounted police initially attempted to disperse them, but later allowed them to march. The atmosphere worsened and the clashes began when demonstrators headed up Agron Street toward the Prime Minister’s Residence in early evening; confrontations continued after nightfall.
“Apparently the streets of Israel must burn like they do in Baltimore, in order for someone to finally wake up. The apartheid regime is back, this time in 21st-century Israel,” Gadi Yevarkan, head of the Campaign for Equality for Ethiopian Jews, told Ynet.
“To see a soldier in uniform beaten by policemen in uniform is confirmation of official policy that allows police to beat blacks without having to be accountable to state laws,” he said.
Meeting with some of the leaders of the protest, Barkat underlined their right to protest, but noted that the demonstration was not pre-arranged and licensed as required by law.
The clip that emerged on Monday showed Ethiopian soldier Damas Pakada being attacked by two policemen the day before. Police said the second man was a volunteer policeman, and that he would no longer be allowed to serve with the police. He was arrested and held over allegations that he had attacked the police officers.
A spokesperson for the police said they would “act with determination against any party acting in violation of police orders, while endangering the police and public security, and disturbing public order.”
Earlier Thursday, Israel Police Chief Yohanan Danino met activists from the Ethiopian community, and said he would establish a special team to examine the community’s claims and formulate ways to deal with the problem, Ynet reported.
Danino said that the officer who was filmed beating Pakada would be expelled from the force, pending a hearing.
“There is no room for such officers in the Israel Police,” he said.
Yevarkan refused to attend the meeting with Danino, claiming police were “putting on a show for the media.”
According to Yevarkan, the protest came after years of neglect and racism. “Our younger generation is desperate and it will only get worse if the government doesn’t take action,” he said.
President Reuven Rivlin also addressed the footage of Pakada’s beating on Thursday, while hosting a delegation of students from Israel’s Ethiopian community as part of a seminar on education.
“We cannot sit back in the face of anger and shouting – incidents such as these must serve as a warning sign, and an opportunity to conduct some genuine and thorough introspection,” Rivlin told the students.
“The shock that we all felt when we saw those pictures – which I am pleased to say immediately led the Israel Police to carry out a thorough and transparent investigation into the incident and its awful outcome – is still deeply felt.”
The incident caught on tape took place in Holon, south of Tel Aviv, on Sunday evening, where police were cordoning off a street due to a suspicious object.
“I feel terrible, and humiliated. This is a disgrace to the State of Israel,” Pakada told Channel 2 Monday. “It’s because of [my] skin color,” he said.
After the footage was obtained by Pakada’s family, he was released from custody, with police promising to investigate the matter.
Pakada, a 21-year-old orphan who emigrated from Ethiopia with his four siblings seven years ago, told Channel 10 that he was riding his bicycle when he noticed the two officers.
He 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.”
He said that the officer threatened to shoot him in the head, and that they only let up after he backed away and lifted a rock.
Several police officers then detained the soldier for alleged assault, although the footage showed that Pakada did not attack them with the rock in his hand.