Israeli leaders try to calm tensions after violent Tel Aviv protest

2015-05-04 20:44
Injured Jewish Ethiopian. (Oded Balilty, AP)

Injured Jewish Ethiopian. (Oded Balilty, AP)

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Tel Aviv - Israel's president and prime minister on Monday expressed sympathy with the country's Ethiopian Jewish community, but called on demonstrators not to resort to violence, after dozens were injured in a Tel Aviv anti-racism protest.

Large numbers of police were deployed in Jerusalem, but an additional demonstration there in front of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's office passed quietly, police spokesperson Micky Rosenfeld said.

Netanyahu met the 19-year-old Ethiopian Israeli soldier whose beating last week by a police officer sparked Sunday night's protest in Tel Aviv, in which 65 people were injured, most of them policemen.

Netanyahu embraced the soldier and said he was "shocked" by the security camera footage that had caught the incident on tape.

"There are things that need changing. I hope that something good will come out the difficult experience you went through," said Netanyahu, who was also met leaders of the Ethiopian community in a bid to calm tensions. 

Sunday and Monday's demonstrations in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, as well as an earlier one last week in Jerusalem, "should lead at least to bring the responsible authorities to their senses", said one community leader, Fentahun Assefa-Dawit.

"There are discrimination issues. There are racism issues in Israel. What can we do to resolve it? What can we do to make it better?" he told reporters in a telephone briefing.


"The prime minister picked up the matter in his own hands. He just started his fourth term as prime minister. This should be his first priority," said the executive director of Tebeka, an Ethiopian Israeli minority rights advocacy group. 

President Reuven Rivlin said the unrest "exposed an open and bleeding wound in the heart of Israeli society, the wound of a community which is screaming from a sense of discrimination, racism and neglect".

"Among those demonstrating in the streets are the best of our sons and daughters," he said, adding: "We owe them answers."

Sunday's demonstrations started in the early afternoon with hundreds blocking a central Tel Aviv artery and subsequently Israel's main Ayalon Highway nearby, jamming traffic for hours.

They then moved on to Tel Aviv's Rabin Square, where some tried to force themselves into the city hall while others pelted police with stones, bottles and firecrackers. 

Police initially showed restraint, but at one point began firing stun grenades, tear gas and water cannon.

It was the first time in decades that police resorted to such measures in Rabin Square, where a police car was overturned and shop windows smashed.

More than 40 people were detained, most of whom were released after several hours, while 19 would be brought before a Tel Aviv court, a police spokesperson said.

Protest a vital tool in democracy

"We must state clearly: Protest is a vital tool in democracy, but violence is not the way and not the solution," warned Rivlin.

The 19-year-old soldier was assaulted by a officer near Tel Aviv on April 26. The incident was recorded by a security camera.

The footage shows the Ethiopian Israeli, who was in uniform, passing by as police were closing off a street because of a suspected bomb in a suburb south of Tel Aviv.

The police officer appears to ask the Ethiopian Israeli to clear the street.

The soldier is seen talking on his cellphone, holding his bike, apparently not backing away quickly enough for the officer, who then roughly pushes the man and his bike and subsequently punches him twice in the head.

As a result of the footage, the officer has been suspended, and an internal investigation has been opened against him.

More than 135 000 Ethiopian Jews live in Israel, a country of 8 million, according to the Central Bureau of Statistics.

Although gaps with other segments of Israeli society are becoming smaller, many still are in lower socio-economic strata than Israel's general Jewish population.

Many also report discrimination when looking for jobs or housing or when treated by authorities, which however are trying to boost integration with a series of programmes.

Read more on:    israel

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