The acting Israel Police chief, Commissioner Motti Cohen, said Tuesday that police acted with restraint during last week’s protests over the killing of an Ethiopian-Israeli by an off-duty police officer, and were “taken advantage” by activists who carried out acts of violence.
“During the recent protests, and especially last week, we witnessed the exploitation of our desire as a police force to allow legitimate protest, and some of the public acted violently against civilians and police in serious disturbances,” Cohen said at a handover ceremony for the Northern Command police chief.
Cohen added that officers were dealing with “a significant challenge of maintaining the balance between allowing the expression of legitimate protest and enforcing the violation of law and order.”
Last week’s protests were sparked when an off-duty police officer shot to death 19-year-old Solomon Tekah in Haifa on June 30.
The demonstrations escalated after Tekah’s funeral last Tuesday, when some protesters set vehicles on fire, overturned police cruisers and clashed with officers and others who tried to break through their makeshift roadblocks.
Community organizers say government reforms meant to address racism and police brutality against Ethiopian-Israelis have yet to be implemented, over three years after promises were made following similar protests.
Cohen also said the officer who shot Tekah must be afforded the presumption of innocence.
“Israeli police officers are often required to act under extreme conditions, and sometimes they are required to deal with complex situations, to exercise quick judgment and to make weighty decisions,” he said. “It is our duty to remember that every citizen and every police officer has the presumption of innocence until proven otherwise by law, even in this unfortunate and tragic event.”
The Justice Ministry’s Police Internal Investigations Department confirmed Monday that a probe into the death of Tekah had concluded the officer fired at the ground and the bullet apparently ricocheted into the teenager.
The officer, who has not been named, claims 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.
Officials are said to be leaning toward charging the man with a disciplinary offense only and not manslaughter.
Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan, whose portfolio covers the police force, spoke at the same ceremony as Cohen on Tuesday, saying that while he supports the police, there should “zero tolerance for excessive violence by police.”
Erdan added: “A violent police officer who does not know how to show restraint cannot stay in the police.”
Ethiopian Jews, who trace their lineage to the ancient Israelite tribe of Dan, began arriving in large numbers in the 1980s, when Israel secretly airlifted them to the Holy Land to save them from war and famine in the Horn of Africa.