Ethiopian-Israeli Protests Put on Hold after Days of Violence
Demonstrators heed plea for calm by slain youth’s family, say Solomon Tekah’s death a part of systematic racism ignored by government
Violent protests by Ethiopian-Israelis have been suspended until Monday as police remain on alert for further rioting and road blockages following the shooting of a youth on June 30.
The clashes began after an off-duty police officer shot and killed Solomon Tekah, 19, in the northern Haifa suburb of Kiryat Haim. The unrest escalated after Tekah’s funeral on July 2, and late the next day, his parents called for an end to the protests until after the seven-day mourning period.
The officer, whose name has not been released, was placed under house arrest.
According to a police statement, the officer was walking through a park with his family during the evening when he saw a fight between “a number of youths” and tried to break it up. After he identified himself, he said the youths began throwing stones at him and he opened fire at Tekah after “feeling that his life was in danger.”
The demonstrations were further spurred by the decision of the Justice Ministry’s Police Investigations Department to place the officer under house arrest rather than jailing him as the investigation proceeded.
“I know that in Israel, the blacker you are… the more you suffer,” Rachel Gil Mor, 27 and one of the activists who organized the protests, told The Media Line.
“This is a place our parents came to with love and desire. They paid a high price to get here to reach their dream, and now it has become a nightmare,” she said. “In Ethiopia, we had to protect ourselves against anti-Semites, and here we have to protect ourselves from racism. It is absurd.”
Since Monday, 112 police officers have been injured and 136 protesters arrested for throwing rocks, burning tires and vandalizing cars, according to police. Video from the demonstrations shows protesters causing massive traffic jams throughout the country, overturning and burning cars, and throwing rocks at police – all of which angered many Israelis.
“Police were patient and allowed protests to take place, but as soon as it turned violent, officers responded,” Israeli police spokesman Micky Rosenfeld told The Media Line. “As of now, things remain quiet, but police are still located on the ground around the country and can respond if necessary.”
Samuel Belay, 40, a tour guide who had gone to a store on Jerusalem’s Ben-Yehuda pedestrian mall to choose a traditional Jewish prayer shawl for his wedding, said on Thursday that he had not taken part in the demonstrations but understood the “pain, anger and frustration” the protesters felt.
“It comes from a very deep sense of helplessness. They speak and there are no ears to listen to them, no eyes to see them,” Belay told The Media Line, adding that on the day of the shooting, he himself had been singled out for harassment by two members of the Border Police at a Jerusalem bar while he was sitting with his Swedish fiancée.
“The other people in the bar stood up for me but we left,” he said. “It feels like we [of Ethiopian background] are with our people but we are still not a part of them.”
Belay, who served in a combat unit in the army, said that in general, he had learned how to look past such issues.
On Thursday, Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan visited the Tekah family, which was observing the traditional seven-day Jewish mourning period.
“Millions of people in the State of Israel share your grief,” Erdan said in a video posted on Twitter by an Israeli TV channel. “I know this painful event has made [people] think and I have spent many hours thinking of this sad incident and of Solomon. No words can really comfort you, but your grief is our grief. We are one family and one nation.”
President Reuven Rivlin also called for calm.
“We must stop – I repeat, stop − and think together how we go on from here,” he said. “We must allow the investigation into Solomon’s death to run its course, and we must prevent the next death.”
Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu acknowledged that “there are problems that need to be solved,” but he implored protesters to “stop blocking junctions” on Tuesday.
“I ask you, let’s solve the problems together while adhering to the law,” he said.
He added that the police had “promised” they would “make a great effort to determine the truth [about the circumstances of Tekah’s death] as quickly as possible.”
But young members of the Ethiopian-Israeli community are tired of waiting.
“We don’t believe that the meetings [and investigations] are what will help,” Gil Mor said.
Tekah was the second Ethiopian-Israeli youth to be killed by police in six months.
Yehuda Biadga, 24, who was known to have mental health issues, was shot in January by an officer who said Biadga lunged at him with a knife. The police had been called in by relatives during a family altercation. The officer was eventually cleared in the shooting.
Activists say the number of Ethiopian-Israeli youths killed between 2015 and 2017 grew drastically and that to date, no policy has been formulated to address what the Ethiopian-Israeli community says is systematic discrimination in Israeli society.
“We have been asking for many years that something be done, and nothing has happened,” Gil Mor went on. “We need to address the issue of racism at its root. The families have been asking for justice for years regarding police violence. We are asking that Solomon be the last child who is killed. Everyone knows what they have to do. The prime minister knows, the minister of finance knows.”
Israel’s Ethiopian Jewish community numbers around 140,000 people, including more than 50,000 born in the country. Most are descendants of communities cut off from the Jewish world for centuries and belatedly recognized as Jews by Israeli religious authorities. They have higher unemployment and poverty rates than the Israeli average.
A number of members of the community posted on social media images of themselves destroying their army uniforms and saying they would no longer serve.
“Until this incident, I wanted to serve in an army combat unit; now I am going to sign a waiver not to serve,” said Rachel Wandifraw, 17, as she and her mother, Zehava Mengistu, shopped in downtown Jerusalem on Thursday.
“I know there is racism in every country,” Wandifraw told The Media Line. “This isn’t the first young Ethiopian man to be killed. Yes, the demonstrations were violent but… it is sad that when we were quiet, nobody listened.”
She stated that many Israelis had let loose with racist statements on social media sites while discussing the demonstrations and the killing. She added that there were similarities to the shootings of young black men in the US and she could understand what they were going through, yet each country had its own circumstances and situations.
“Every time my son goes out, my heart goes with him,” Wandifraw’s mother, who came to Israel from Ethiopia in 2000, told The Media Line. “I always ask him to call me. A white Israeli isn’t afraid like that.”