Members of the Ethiopian-Israeli community and others gathered at major intersections across the country Wednesday afternoon, as Israel braced for fresh demonstrations, a day after violent protests over the killing of a 19-year-old man by an off-duty police officer.
By mid-evening, it was clear that the protests were far calmer than Tuesday’s violent demonstrations.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and other top officials appealed for calm and vowed to stamp out violence, amid simmering anger over the killing of Solomon Tekah in Haifa on Sunday.
At the Azrieli junction in Tel Aviv, a major traffic hub, police blocked both cars and protesters from entering the intersection, in an attempt to avoid a repeat of the widespread chaos and violence at the site from a day earlier. As night fell, the junction was open and traffic was flowing normally.
Five people were reported arrested in Tel Aviv, where many of the protesters wore shirts or carried signs identifying themselves as activists for Meretz or the Joint List of Arab parties.
Sporadic arrests were reported in other cities as well Wednesday, but the demonstrations were muted on the whole as compared to previous days.
Since Monday, protesters across the country have blocked roads, burned tires and denounced what they say is systemic discrimination against the Ethiopian-Israeli community.
The demonstrations escalated on Tuesday, when some protesters set vehicles on fire and clashed with police and others who tried to break through their makeshift roadblocks.
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.
On Wednesday afternoon, as protesters gathered at major highways and junctions across the country, Netanyahu issued a statement acknowledging that “there are problems that need to be solved,” but he warned that authorities “will not tolerate the blocking of roads.”
“I ask you: Let us solve the problems together while upholding the law,” he implored protesters after a security cabinet meeting.
Police have allowed demonstrators to block roads in some locations earlier in the week, but signaled Wednesday they were prepared to act more forcefully.
Acting police commissioner Moti Cohen warned protesters that no more violence would be tolerated.
“There is no place for attacks on public officials, on institutions and property,” Cohen said ahead of the expected protests.
“No more quarter will be given to public disorder, to blocking roads or to violence,” he said. “We will continue to respond proportionately, to distinguish between those exercising their right to protest in a democratic country, and those who incite and assault.”
President Reuven Rivlin also issued a call for calm Wednesday: “We must stop, I repeat, stop — and think together how we go on from here.”
“This is not a civil war. It is a shared struggle of brothers and sisters for their shared home and their shared future. I ask of all of us to act responsibly and with moderation,” he said in a statement.
“We must allow the investigation into Solomon’s death to run its course, and we must prevent the next death. The next attack. The next humiliation. We are all committed to this,” Rivlin said.
Tekah, the slain Ethiopian teen, was shot dead by an off-duty police officer during an altercation in the Kiryat Haim neighborhood of Haifa on Sunday. An eyewitness to the shooting has reportedly told the Justice Ministry’s Police Internal Investigations Department that, contrary to the officer’s claims, he did not appear to have been in danger when he opened fire.
The officer who shot Tekah was arrested on suspicion of unlawful killing, the PIID said Monday. The Haifa Magistrate’s Court later released him to house arrest, sparking further rage in the community. He is reportedly under heavy guard due to fears for his safety.
According to Channel 12 news, the officer claims he aimed downwards, and a bullet ricocheted from the ground, hitting Tekah. The officer claimed he was trying to break up a street fight he came across, but was set upon by three youths who hurled stones at him, endangering his life.
The PIID issued a rare statement on Tuesday, saying it had collected new evidence in the probe, including eyewitness testimony and footage from a security camera near the scene.
Reports in Hebrew-language media investigators were leaning toward a lesser charge than manslaughter, indicating that authorities were accepting the testimony that he fired at the ground.
More than 135,000 Jews of Ethiopian descent live in Israel. Those who immigrated arrived in two main waves, in 1984 and 1991, but many have struggled to integrate into Israeli society.
Many in the community complain of racism, lack of opportunity and routine police harassment, despite repeated promises by the government to address the issue.
While Monday’s protests were primarily attended by Ethiopian-Israeli demonstrators, Tuesday saw a mobilization of members of the general Israeli public, who joined the chants against police brutality toward the minority community.
Protest organizers called for the street rallies to resume across the country Wednesday evening. According to social media posts, organizers said protesters were gathering at the Kiryat Ata interchange near Haifa; Yokne’am interchange; Afula’s Independence Square; Poleg interchange; Azrieli interchange in Tel Aviv; in front of the Rosh Ha’ayin police station; Route 4 near Rishon Lezion and Yavne; the northwestern entrance to Jerusalem; city entrances and exits along Route 431; El Al interchange near Lod; Bilu interchange; Kastina interchange; Ashkelon Arena interchange; and the Beersheba Central Bus Station.
By Wednesday afternoon, heavy traffic was reported in some areas of Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. However, many commuters who were stuck on the road for hours Tuesday chose to avoid highways, leading to sparse traffic on parts of the Ayalon freeway which runs through Tel Aviv and overcrowding on the high-speed train between the two cities.
The Transportation Ministry opened a hotline for Israelis stuck in expected traffic jams due to mass protests. The national hotline, which can be reached at *8787, will provide drivers with traffic updates, and allow people to report blocked roads and other incidents in their area.
Meanwhile, Commissioner Cohen and Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan met with leaders of the Ethiopian-Israeli community in a last-ditch effort to avoid violent confrontations at protests
“I share the pain and understand the outcry,” Erdan said Wednesday, as he promised to set up an internal police unit to oversee racism claims and track disciplinary action taken against incidents.
“The Israel Police has courageously and honestly acknowledged that there was over-policing [in Ethiopian-Israeli communities], and we are tackling that, including through cooperation with you,” he told leaders according to a statement from his office. “Obviously, there’s a great deal more that needs to be addressed.”