The thick smoke of burning tires rose high into the sky over deadlocked commuters Tuesday evening, as thousands of protesters closed down at least 12 critical junctions across the country amid seething anger among Israel’s Ethiopian community over the fatal shooting of an unarmed teenager by an off-duty police officer.
Rush-hour traffic was brought to a standstill on several major Israeli thoroughfares as protests were staged nationwide over the killing of 19-year-old Solomon Tekah, whose funeral took place in the early afternoon at the Tel Regev Cemetery near Haifa.
“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 Aylon in both directions.
איילון דרום, הנהגים עצבניים. בניגוד להפגנה הקודמת אחרי מותו של יהודה ביאדגה, הפעם הפגנה לא רק של יוצאי אתיופיה. pic.twitter.com/GktwJYgkk1
— Josh Breiner (@JoshBreiner) July 2, 2019
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.
The police said that they had arrested 16 protesters who were hurling stones and cinder blocks at them during a demonstration in the northern town of Kiryat Ata. At least one car was also set on fire.
Other major road closures were seen at Petah Tikva’s Geha interchange as well as on Route 2 between the Poleg and Netanya intersections.
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.
Tekah was shot dead 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 department is said to be moving quickly to investigate the case due to the sensitivity of the situation.
The Israel Police officer who shot Tekah was arrested on suspicion of unlawful killing, the PIID said Monday. The Haifa Magistrate’s Court later released the officer 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.
Earlier Tuesday, the PIID issued a rare statement 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.
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 hall 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.”
Rabbi Moshe Baruch of the Ashdod Ethiopian community opened the ceremony by calling for a nationwide examination of the problem.
“As Solomon’s face is before us, we all have to do some very deep soul-searching, not only the Ethiopian community, but Israeli society as a whole,” Baruch said. “We have to unite when such things happen.”
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.