An off-duty Israel Police officer who shot dead an Ethiopian-Israeli teenager has been arrested on suspicion of unlawful killing, the Justice Ministry’s Police Internal Investigations Department said Monday. The Haifa Magistrate’s Court later released the officer to house arrest.
Solomon Tekah, 19, was shot dead the night before during an altercation in the Kiryat Haim neighborhood of Haifa. An eyewitness to the shooting has reportedly told the PIID that, contrary to the officer’s claims, he did not appear to have been in danger when he opened fire.
The incident immediately sparked renewed accusations of police brutality and racism toward the Ethiopian community. 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.
Officials have promised a transparent investigation into the shooting.
“Overnight, a police officer was arrested on suspicion of unlawful killing following an event during which a 19-year-old was shot dead in Kiryat Haim,” the PIID said in a statement.
A source involved in the investigation told Channel 13 TV news that “on the face of it, there is a serious concern of reckless shooting.”
בחיפה, צומת הרחובות שדרות ההסתדרות ואח"י אילת נחסם לתנועה לבאים מכל הכיוונים, בסמוך למשטרת זבולון, בגלל הפגנה.
באזור עומסי תנועה כבדים לבאים מכל הכיוונים.
סעו דרך כביש מספר 22 או דרך קרית ים. pic.twitter.com/1x0k8zbOJF
— בני כבודי (@benikvodi) July 1, 2019
Dozens of Ethiopian-Israelis and allies of their community demonstrated Monday in Haifa, blocking the junction of Hahistadrut and Achi Eilat boulevards, near the Zebulun police station, where the officer is reportedly stationed.
A youth counselor at a center near the scene of the shooting, who was an eyewitness to the incident, told the Haaretz newspaper Monday that he did not see that the officer was under threat when he opened fire.
“The policeman was not in any danger. He actually took up a shooting stance and fired a single bullet when Solomon was at a distance of at least 30 meters from him,” said the counselor, who was identified only by his first name, Eli. “Unequivocally, the policeman did not shoot while under stress.”
Eli said he was outside smoking a cigarette with one of his charges, and Tekah was standing close by. He said things were calm and Tekah walked away.
“After a few minutes, we suddenly saw a rock that was thrown in our direction and hit the underside of a car near us,” Eli recalled. “A few seconds later I saw the guy who fired.”
“We heard shouting and curses and then he just adopted a shooting stance and, while shouting or cursing, fired. At this point I didn’t see Solomon or the other youths but it was clear that the officer was not in any kind of interaction of physical blows with them. From my angle he didn’t shoot at the legs.”
Eli said he called an ambulance and police arrived within a couple of minutes.
“One of the counselors tried to resuscitate Solomon and I saw the cop who fired just walking around among us, next to his body. The bullet hit Solomon in the chest. He [the policeman] was walking around among us as though nothing had happened, and spoke on his cellphone. As he walked among us I also didn’t see that he was injured. If he was injured, he really managed to hide it well. There was no danger to life and also his children were near him.”
Eli gave his testimony on Sunday evening to the PIID.
A source told Haaretz that the officer is a father of three who was heading to a playground with his family when he noticed Tekah and two others beating up a 13-year-old boy. The officer intervened, and in the altercation that followed the youths allegedly threw three rocks at him, hitting him in the head and back.
The officer then opened fire, aiming at the ground, he claims. According to the Haaretz report, PIID are checking whether the bullet may have ricocheted off the floor and hit Tekah.
Attorney Yair Nadashi, who is representing the policeman, said Monday that his client had been released from the hospital overnight.
“He claims that the shooting was done as an act of self-defense after he was brutally attacked with rocks,” Nadashi said in the report.
The Magen David Adom ambulance service said it responded to a call shortly after 8 p.m. Sunday evening about a shooting on Hashayara Street in Kiryat Haim. There, medics found the man with a bullet wound.
He was later identified as Tekah.
Paramedics transported him in critical condition to Haifa’s Rambam Medical Center while trying to stanch the bleeding and performing CPR, but the victim was pronounced dead a short while later.
“An initial examination revealed that an off-duty policeman who was with his wife and three small children at a nearby playground noticed a fight in the street between several youths and tried to break it up,” police said in a statement.
They added that the youth hurled stones at the officer “at some point after” the latter had identified himself as law enforcement.
The officer claimed to have been in mortal danger when he fired.
Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan expresses “shock” at the incident and said he expects police investigators to present their findings with “complete transparency to the public”
Responding to the shooting, Blue and White MK Pnina Tamano-Shata, who is of Ethiopian descent, accused police of declaring “open season” against youth of Ethiopian descent.
“Our children’s lives are less secure and the reaction of the community will be severe. This is because of the failure of the Israeli government and its branches, including the public security minister and the Police Internal Investigations Department, to deal with the situation,” she said.
MK Gadi Yevarkan, also of Blue and White, said there are dozens of instances of criminal behavior in Israel every week, but only when the perpetrators are of Ethiopian descent are “police fingers so quick on the trigger.”
“Unfortunately, one thing is already clear: I already don’t believe whatever the findings of the police will be, if they even investigate. They have already proven that they deceive the public,” Yevarkan said
In January, police shot and killed Yehuda Biadga, a 24-year-old resident of Bat Yam. Law enforcement said the victim had charged at an officer with a knife.
The incident led to mass protests in Tel Aviv and throughout the country against police brutality, particularly toward Ethiopian Israelis.
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.