Ethiopian-Israelis and their supporters staged a large rally in Tel Aviv Sunday afternoon, protesting alleged institutional racism and racist police brutality and blocking a major highway in the center of the city.
The demonstration came days after a large rally in Jerusalem Thursday night turned violent, as hundreds demonstrated against racism following the police beating of an Israeli soldier from the Ethiopian community.
Sunday’s rally commenced at the city’s iconic Azrieli Center at 3 p.m. and was followed by a march toward the bustling Ayalon highway, where protesters blocked the city’s major north-south artery.
Police spokesman Micky Rosenfeld said Sunday’s protest was mostly peaceful, though several arrests were made, according to media reports. Protesters chanted “Violent police officers belong in jail.”
Media reports put the number of protesters at several thousand strong.
The protesters were expected to make their way to the central Rabin Square.
The Zionist Union’s MK Stav Shaffir, and former Yesh Atid MK Pnina Tamano-Shata — the first female Ethiopian-born Knesset member — were in attendance at the rally.
“The young generation that grew up in Israel is demanding, rightfully, equal opportunity,” Tamano-Shata told Army Radio. “It is fed up with being discriminated against from a young age.”
“We want to show people that racism is not routine, and that is why we will disrupt their routines — to make them understand that,” activist Inbar Bolgleh told Channel 2 before the event.
“We are Israelis, just like everyone else. A large portion of Ethiopian immigrants are people who were born here and they deserve their rights,” said another activist, Spiano Malko, according to the news site Ynet.
While no official group took charge of organizing the rally, word of the protest spread quickly online over the weekend. Activists on Facebook called on demonstrators to bring cameras and smartphones in order to document any cases of brutality that might be directed at the protesters.
The protesters were galvanized by the publication of a video of an Ethiopian-Israeli soldier being beaten by police in the coastal city of Bat Yam, apparently without provocation. The footage sparked widespread anger in the community and prompted a surge of accusations of lingering institutional discrimination and racism.
At Thursday’s protest in Jerusalem, which was officially staged in order to highlight police brutality against members of Israel’s Ethiopian community, police deployed tear gas, stun grenades and water hoses against the protesters. Meanwhile, pockets of demonstrators threw stones and bottles at police and blocked streets as well as the city’s light rail tracks as they attempted to march on the Prime Minister’s Residence.
Three police officers were injured at the protest, along with as many as 13 demonstrators. Two were arrested. Shortly after 1 a.m. Friday, the last of the protesters went home.
“You will see these protests in every city,” a masked activist told Channel 2 during the demonstration. He explained that he chose to obscure his face to prevent police from 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 protester told the Walla news website.
On Friday, Israel Police Commissioner Yohanan Danino defended the officers involved in the clashes with Ethiopian Israelis during the Jerusalem demonstration, insisting that they responded with “restraint” to violence directed at them. “I would like to commend the Jerusalem District and backup officers for the restraint they exhibited,” he said in a letter to officers. Still, police officials said that they had not been sufficiently prepared for the number of protesters who attended the Jerusalem demonstration, Channel 10 reported.
The police have been trying to soothe the resentment in the Ethiopian community over perceived racist and brutal treatment. Channel 2 news reported Friday night that officials planned to review charges against members of the community and withdraw cases in which police conduct was in question.
The demonstration in the capital came in wake of video footage that emerged Monday showing policemen beating an Ethiopian-born IDF soldier, Damas Pakada, who claimed later to have been the target of a racist attack.
“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.
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. After the footage was obtained by Pakada’s family, he was released from custody, with police promising to investigate the matter.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and President Reuven Rivlin have both condemned the beating of the soldier, but Netanyahu also urged dialogue rather than violence in dealing with the issues raised by the protesters.
Danino, for his part, said that the officer who was filmed beating the Pakada would be expelled from the police force, pending a hearing. “There is no room for such officers in the Israel Police,” he said. On Thursday, 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.
Times of Israel staff and AP contributed to this report.