What went wrong on Sunday night, when a peaceful demonstration organized by young Israelis of Ethiopian origin against discrimination turned central Tel Aviv into a battlefield?
Mere hours after the smoke and tear gas had cleared at Rabin Square, and police officers and demonstrators had headed home after a violent confrontation that sent dozens to the hospital, a clash of narratives began.
Police said officers had acted with “restraint throughout the protest, but at a certain point acts of vandalism started and many demonstrators acted violently, risking human lives.”
President Reuven Rivlin appeared to contradict the police’s assertion that “many” demonstrators were to blame for the escalation, speaking instead of “a handful of violent trouble makers.”
Representatives of the Israeli-Ethiopian community rejected accusations that they instigated the violence, blaming the police for having provoked and in many cases even started the brawling.
Everyone agrees that the demonstration proceeded smoothly for hours, though it was held without a permit and was therefore illegal. But it’s unclear what exactly happened once the masses moved toward Rabin Square and the violence started, and whether it could have been averted had the police acted differently.
“Everyone was doing their job: the demonstrators as well as the police,” said former MK Shimon Solomon, who immigrated from Ethiopia at age 10 and who attended Sunday’s protest. At Rabin Square, suddenly “anarchic interest groups that jumped on the bandwagon did almost everything to bring about violence,” he recalled. “Someone threw a water bottle toward the policemen and that incited the entire story.”
It’s not clear who these people are and which groups they belong to, but sooner or later that will become known, he declared. There was also “a small group of people” from within the Israeli-Ethiopian community who lusted for action, Solomon allowed, but most of the violence emanated from rowdies who had nothing to do with the cause of the demonstration.
“At the end of the day, if you have thousands of people at a demonstration, you will always have a small group that wants an escalation,” he said. “We want to make our voices heard. We want to shout out loud to change the situation. But not with violence. We know it doesn’t achieve anything; on the contrary, it works against us.”
Hana Elazar Legesse, of the Israel Association for Ethiopian Jews, said the police alone bore the blame for Sunday night’s violence, arguing that officers had made the atmosphere tense before the event had even started and later overreacted to sporadic incidents of violence from the crowd.
“Did you see the police’s preparations for the demonstration in Rabin Square? Did you see the number of policemen, of police cars, of riot gear? Many people who have been to many demonstrations said they’ve never seen so many crowd dispersal measures used as last night against members of the Ethiopian community.”
‘The community is not violent. This is not in our genes’
The police’s massive deployment in anticipation of violent confrontations was “a self-fulfilling prophesy,” she said. “Everyone who was there said that it was the first time that they saw police using such enormous force. This was to create the narrative that Ethiopians are violent, to counter the accusation against police brutality. They’re turning reality on its head.”
Israelis of Ethiopians origin are by nature a peaceful bunch, she said. “The community is not violent. This is not in our genes. We know how to respect human beings regardless of who they are.”
Asked about demonstrators who threw stones and bottles at police, Elazar Legesse replied apologetically. If they use tear gas and mounted police against them their anger is understandable, she said. “In every community there are a few people whose fuses light easily. But not everyone is like that. To portray the entire community as violent is another crime the police commit.”
The community at large did nothing wrong, she continued. If only the police had been sensitive to the fact that the crowd was expressing frustration over 30 years of discrimination, racism and separation, things might have turned out differently, she said.
‘This should be the prime minister’s first priority’
Looking ahead, the leaders of Israel’s Ethiopian community are seeking to take their protest to the country’s halls of powers and to translate the public attention garnered by their grievances into concrete policies.
“I hope the prime minister takes the matter into his hands. This should be his first priority, if he doesn’t want Israel to be like any third world country,” Fentahun Assefa-Dawit, the executive director of Tebeka, an organization advocating equality and justice for Israelis of Ethiopian origin, said on Monday.
Minutes before entering Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s office for a meeting with community leaders, Assefa-Dawit said the incoming government and the police need to realize that racism and discrimination are “burning issues” that need their urgent attention “before it’s too late.”
Assefa-Dawit said he would push Netanyahu to create a committee to investigate how authorities routinely discriminate against citizens of Ethiopian background. “In four years I want to see the prime minister saying, ‘I am glad I did it,’ rather than ‘I wish I had done it.’”
Solomon, the former Ethiopian-born MK, who is deeply involved in the current protests, said that that the first order of business needs to be to understand why there is so much distrust between the police and his community. The next step would be to create a “working plan” to reduce the discrimination stemming from latent racism that’s deeply entrenched in Israeli society.
“Our problem is that there’s covert racism. Sometimes this covert racism is much worse than open racism,” he said. “A sick person knows he’s sick and gets treated and possibly gets rid of his illness. But a sick person who doesn’t know he’s sick deteriorates and eventually reaches a point of no return.” The key to solving the current crisis, therefore, lies in tackling the sources of covert racism, he said.
The young Israelis who organized Sunday’s demonstration — largely over online social networks — are not centrally organized and therefore have no official leaders to articulate their demands, said Elazar Legesse, of the Israel Association for Ethiopian Jews.
Her organization, however, is calling on the government to implement three immediate steps. First, the police should close all outstanding cases against minors of Ethiopian background accused of violence against a police officer. “A 14-year-old boy or a 17-year-old teenager can hit a policeman? Does that seem logical?” she said. Behind such claims are usually policemen who beat up youths and then open files against them if they respond, she charged.
Second, the group is calling for a new law that would obligate policemen to carry a camera and document every interaction with civilians. It also demands that all complaints filed by Israeli-Ethiopians with the Israel Police Investigations Unit be reopened. “People don’t complain anymore because they don’t believe it will lead to anything,” Elazar Legesse said.
Lastly, her organization has demanded that any public servant who acts in a racist or violent way, whether teacher or policemen, be suspended until justice is done.
“There is a general atmosphere of violence in Israel that is unacceptable. This needs to stop. This is our home, just like everyone else’s. We’re here and we’re not going anywhere. And we need to live together,” she said.
“If we won’t have a country of citizens that are united, there will be more explosions. The state will explode — for this we don’t need enemies from the outside. We need a dialogue on violence in this country, on how we treat each other. I hope that after everything that occurred last night, this is what’s going to happen now.”