Damas Pakada, an Ethiopia-born IDF soldier who sparked protests by Ethiopian Jews after video emerged of him being beaten by a police officer, is now a decorated officer in the cyber unit of the army’s technology branch.
Padaka, 24, a first lieutenant in the Topaz unit of the Technological and Logistics Directorate, came to Israel with seven siblings after losing his father at age 9. In Israel, at age 13, he lost his mother, too, after she succumbed to illness. He and his siblings grew up in one of the toughest neighborhoods of Holon, a southern suburb of Tel Aviv.
In April 2015, on his birthday, Pakada was released from the army for the day and was on his way home to celebrate with his brother.
A police officer stopped him on the sidewalk as he was cordoning off the area because a suspicious object had been spotted. The officer then pushed Pakada, tossed his bicycle aside and proceeded to push and kick the soldier, including stepping on him while he lay prostrate on the ground attempting to deflect the blows.
A video camera caught the officer beating Pakada, then 21.
At one point, the officer was seen drawing his pistol. “The cop told me, ‘I’m doing my job and if I need to put a bullet in your head, I would do it. I am proud of my job,’” Pakada told the Ynet news site at the time.
Within hours of the camera footage airing on national television, Pakada was out of jail and the police officer was dismissed from the force.
“If there weren’t for that camera, I’d be behind bars,” he told Hadashot TV news last week. Discovering shortly after the attack that there was footage of the incident, he said, was “like a miracle, wonder of wonders.”
After the incident, Pakada said he grew depressed and angry and even contemplated harming himself. “It’s not a good feeling. It breaks you.”
Besides the humiliation of the attack, he had to endure questioning at the police station, during which the investigating officer, he said, refused to hear his side, telling him to “shut up while I write the report.”
But Pakada didn’t quit. “My victory is that I didn’t lose my optimism,” he told Hadashot. “I’m proof that you can overcome the challenge.”
Pakada is known in his hardscrabble neighborhood for more than that nationally televised incident. He had a long record of volunteerism in the community, including setting up an after-school math club and a local chapter of the Bnei Akiva youth movement in order to give local schoolchildren something better to do in the afternoons than hang around in the street.
Pakada’s experience became a symbol for what many Ethiopian Israelis say was systematic police targeting of their community.
The incident touched off a string of rallies in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem against police brutality. Many used the rallies to raise broader concerns about institutionalized discrimination, racism and neglect toward the Ethiopian Jewish community.
The protests sparked last year by the original incident included one in Tel Aviv in May 2015 in Rabin Square, which turned violent as protesters hurled rocks at police and officers responded with stun grenades and water cannons. The melee left 65 people injured among both police and protesters, and led to 43 arrests.
The day after, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu invited Pakada for a meeting and pledged to eradicate racism and police violence.
More than 135,000 Ethiopian Jews live in Israel, having immigrated in two waves in 1984 and 1991. But many have struggled to integrate into Israeli society among lingering accusations of discrimination.