Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan vowed early Wednesday to prevent “anarchy” as police put an end to day-long protests by Ethiopian Israelis that turned violent and blocked key junctions across the country for hours in a display of anger over the fatal shooting of an unarmed teenager by an off-duty cop earlier this week.
Just before midnight Tuesday, police in riot gear moved in to clear the junctions after letting protesters block them for much of the day. In Tel Aviv, they used stun grenades and mounted officers to open the main Ayalon highway.
In the northern town of Afula, an officer fired warning shots into the air after he was hit by stones and fell to the ground.
In all, police said some 47 officers were injured on Tuesday and at least 60 demonstrators were arrested across the country over the disturbances. It did not offer a tally on protester injuries. One demonstrator was moderately injured in a hit-and-run on Tuesday evening, medics said.
Speaking after meeting police chiefs to take stock of the situation shortly after midnight, Erdan said he supported the right to protest but would not tolerate violence and “anarchy.”
“The Israel Police made every effort and did everything possible to allow the protesters to express their pain and put out their message,” said Erdan. “Forces acted with restraint and tried to avoid violent clashes that would lead to further bloodshed.”
“We will continue to protect the rights of protesters to demonstrate, but we will not tolerate anarchy and we will not tolerate serious disruptions to public life,” he said, adding that police would also work to “prevent harm to people or serious destruction of property.”
Nineteen-year-old Solomon Tekah 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 was briefly arrested before being released to house arrest, sparking further rage in the community, which alleges systemic police racism.
Rush-hour traffic was brought to a standstill Tuesday on several major Israeli thoroughfares as protests were staged nationwide, hours after Tekah was buried at the Tel Regev Cemetery near Haifa.
By 1 a.m.Wednesday, most roads were open and the railways announced that trains would run through the night to try to help the tens of thousands of people affected by the day-long gridlock.
During the day, many of the rallies devolved into riots, leaving dozens hurt and at least four cars damaged, as some 50,000 commuters remained stuck in traffic for hours.
The dramatic scenes included acts of vandalism and violence. Footage captured in the center of Tel Aviv saw a demonstrator leap onto a moving car and proceed to smash its windshield. Hours later, the car was set on fire.
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In Netanya, a police car was set upon by demonstrators and flipped over. It was also later set on fire. And in Kiryat Atta in the north, near the scene of the shooting, another vehicle was torched.
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In Kiryat Malachi in the south, all the police vehicles at the local station were pelted with rocks.
On Route 431 near the central city of Ramle, a demonstrator was hit by a car on Tuesday evening and rushed to a hospital with moderate injuries, medics said. The driver fled the scene.
During the day police largely appeared to take a hands-off approach, allowing the demonstrators to obstruct traffic at key intersections nationwide.
“End the killing, end the racism,” chanted demonstrators at Tel Aviv’s Azrieli Junction as they first waded across the Ayalon Highway, which traverses the length of Israel’s second city. The motorists who failed to get through soon saw the protest swell to hundreds as traffic ground to a halt.
After initially trying to keep some of the highway open, the police, when a second large protest blocked the road at the Shalom Junction, conceded to the protesters and completely closed Ayalon in both directions.
While the Tel Aviv protests remained mostly calm, aside from a few enraged drivers who tried to break through the blockade, elsewhere in the country, protesters clashed with police in scenes reminiscent of a violent 2015 standoff between officers and thousands of Ethiopian-Israeli protesters.
Earlier Tuesday, the police said that they arrested 16 protesters who were hurling stones and cinder blocks at them during a demonstration in the northern town of Kiryat Ata.
Other major road closures were seen at Petah Tikva’s Geha interchange as well as on Route 2 between the Poleg and Netanya intersections.
Several hundred demonstrators also gathered at the western entrance of Jerusalem to block the road in protest of Tekah’s death.
While protests Monday against the police 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.
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. He is reportedly under heavy guard due to fears for his safety.
According to Channel 12 news, the officer claims he opened fire because he believed himself to be in danger but 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 earlier Tuesday, saying it had collected new evidence in the probe, including eyewitness testimony and footage from a security camera near the scene.
Channel 12 reported that the investigation will focus on whether the officer’s life was actually in danger when he pulled the trigger, and whether he was justified in using his weapon in that situation, even if it is finally determined that Tekah was indeed killed by a ricochet.
Israel’s main networks said Tuesday evening that investigators were leaning toward pursuing a lesser charge than manslaughter, indicating that authorities were accepting the testimony that he fired at the ground.
The latest protests took place after hundreds of people gathered at the Ethiopian congregation’s Heritage House in Haifa to bury Tekah.
“Give me back my son,” Tekah’s father Worka cried as he entered the funeral home in the Kiryat Haim neighborhood of the northern city. “My son had a joy for life and love of life. He smiled and he was sensitive.”
Worka Tekah used his eulogy as a plea for justice and cry for hope that the situation would change.
“We are asking for justice. My son has already gone but I hope he will be the last victim. Do not cry for my son. We demand that the murderer get what he deserves and find justice. Help me in this struggle,” he said.
“We came here together — how can it all be destroyed? How did this thing happen to us? How are we different just because we are Ethiopian? How can you shoot a poor child? How does this person kill my son in cold blood? Just because he’s a cop doesn’t give him the right.
“We respect the laws and customs. Why are we not respected? We have to live together. Enough! Let us be at peace. I want to be the last parent to bury their child,” he added. “Solomon, I beg for your forgiveness. We did not protect you. We weren’t there to protect you. We weren’t there to lend you a hand.”
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.
Community leaders and others have said there is a pattern of racism and abuse by police toward Ethiopian-Israelis, despite repeated promises to root out the problem.