Members of the Israeli security forces detain a protester during a demonstration in Tel Aviv on July 3, 2019, against police violence and the recent killing of a young man. Photo: Ahmad Gharabli / AFP

Israeli minorities have long suffered fraught relations with the police and the Ethiopian Jewish community is no exception. After an Ethiopian teenager was shot dead, riots and protests emerged as the community and its supporters responded to what they see as violence engendered by institutional racism.

More than 80 people have been injured so far, including both protesters and police officers, and 136 people have been arrested, according to the latest tally.

The catalyst for these demonstrations was an off-duty police officer in Haifa shooting 19-year-old Solomon Tekah during an altercation involving multiple youths. The killer is a father of three who was heading to a playground with his family when he noticed three teenagers – one of whom was Tekah – beating up a 13-year-old boy. The officer intervened.

In the altercation that followed the youths allegedly threw three rocks at him, hitting him in the head and back. The policeman claimed his life was in danger. However, according to an eyewitness quoted by the Times of Israel, the officer was never in danger and overreacted. The eyewitness said that “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. Unequivocally, the policeman did not shoot while under stress.”

The policeman was arrested and charged with unlawful killing and was soon released on house arrest by the local Magistrates’ Court.

The police vowed to hold a full and transparent investigation. According to leaks, the police don’t believe the officers claims that he was in imminent danger. However, they do believe he had no intention of killing Tekah but rather he shot to either warn or injure the teenager. The police Internal Affairs department believes the bullet ricocheted into the chest of the unfortunate teenager. It appears likely that the officer will be charged with a lesser charge than manslaughter.

Ethiopian lives matter

Many in the Ethiopian-Israeli community are indignant at the shooting and how it has been handled by the courts. They feel law enforcement does not value their lives and safety. Several incidents of police violence involving Ethiopian men have raised questions as to the role of institutional racism in police procedures. Similar protests broke out in 2015 after an Ethiopian-Israeli soldier was beaten by police for no apparent reason in an incident caught on camera.

These incidents are amplified by the context of institutional racism experienced by the community in Israeli society writ large. There are several notable examples of this. One often cited is the revelation that the Israeli Ministry of Health had been secretly disposing of blood donated by Ethiopian-Israelis due to concerns that it was contaminated with HIV. In another well-publicized incident, children of Ethiopian ancestry were denied admission into religious schools for racial reasons.

Finally, in the past, Ethiopian women have been given birth control injections without knowledge of their effects. This has led to allegations that there were attempts to sterilize members of the community. An Israeli state comptroller investigation later determined the women were not coerced into taking birth control but some women were not fully informed as to the side effects of the drugs.

The general feeling among the protestors is that the lives of Ethiopians are worth less than the lives of other Jews in the eyes of the authorities. These sentiments echo those expressed under similar circumstances by the “Black Lives Matter” organization in the United States.

President Reuven Rivlin sympathized and declared: “We must stop, I repeat, stop and think together how we go on from here. None of us have blood that is thicker than anyone else’s, and the lives of our brothers and sisters will never be forfeited.”

Social media to streets

The protests appear to have been organized mostly by teenagers on social media. The activists effectively marshaled protesters to block chokepoints for major traffic arteries throughout the country. Several central highways and interchanges were blocked for hours on Tuesday and for a significant amount of time on Wednesday. Police showed restraint early on. However, in order to clear the highways, they later fired stun grenades and rubber bullets at protesters. This did nothing to dispel charges that police are brutal towards Israelis of Ethiopian descent.

Protests continued on Wednesday while police made it clear that they would not allow roads to be blocked and would evacuate protestors who set up camp in the middle of the street. Fewer participants showed up and lesser urgency was registered although the Azrieli interchange in Tel Aviv was blocked in the evening for a full 40 minutes.

Protests may now be slowing down with the intention of escalating in the future. Organizers have expressed a desire to block the road to the airport and to demonstrate in front of Netanyahu’s house in Caesarea and there is concern that incitement on social media could lead to targeted violence against police officers.

One officer involved has been threatened, according to a relative quoted by the Times of Israel, who said he is facing a “sea of threats on his life, on the lives of his children, on the lives of his parents. They published his picture and his name. They took pictures of him with his kids from Facebook and spread them.”

The Netanyahu government, at least publicly, has been sympathetic towards the grievances of Israelis of Ethiopian descent. The Prime Minister said that “the death of Solomon Tekah is a great tragedy; our hearts go out to the family and lessons will be drawn from the incident.”

However, he is clearly impatient with the demonstrations and wants them to end. He added that “we cannot stand the violence we saw yesterday … it is intolerable and the police are prepared to prevent it.”

Israeli police are in a tough spot as they try to control demonstrations held against their own policies, while taking into account both the safety of the protesters and the needs of the wider public. However, it is important to remember that they are often no more or less than enforcers of an unjust social order.

The reform and social change necessary to prevent killings of this sort from recurring would have to involve changes in attitude far beyond law enforcement.

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