Dozens were injured Sunday evening in Tel Aviv as a protest against racial discrimination turned violent, Israeli media reported. According to Haaretz, police officers accounted for many of the injured, including 56 lightly wounded and 1 moderately injured. 43 protesters were arrested.
The protest began around 3 p.m., with demonstrators blocking the Ayalon highway near the Azrieli towers, a major artery through the city. They also disrupted traffic on other streets in the area, while police blockaded routes leading to the neighborhood of the protest. From there, protesters marched city hall. Police warned protesters they would be removed by force if they did not clear the roads.
The impetus for the protest was the seemingly unprovoked beating of an Ethiopian soldier, Damas Pakada, by police, which was caught on camera by a local resident. The video was circulated last Monday. The incident, which took place in Holon, drew attention to a long-standing struggle Ethiopians face being accepted by the rest of Israeli society.
“It’s a pressure cooker that exploded. There are hundreds of young Ethiopians the police open case files against for no reason, and that ruins their lives. They’re good guys who want to get ahead, to study, to contribute to the state, but they can’t be combat soldiers, they don’t study, they’re called criminals,” said Misganaw Fanta, one of the protest organizers, to Haaretz.
According to Inbal Bogale, one of the organizers who spoke to Haaretz ahead of Sunday’s events, the demonstration was not meant to turn violent. “We cannot use violence when we’re demonstrating against it.”
Bogale rejected comparisons to recent riots in Baltimore. “The fact that we’re black doesn’t mean that we’re Baltimore,” she told the paper. Referring to a similar demonstration in Jerusalem Thursday, which also turned violent, she said, “In Jerusalem we didn’t ‘do a Baltimore’ as people are saying, that’s not what it was about. The police documented every moment of the demonstration and I want to see the documentation, whether we really started the violence as the police claim. We marched in the streets and they fired stun grenades at us.”
Likewise Sunday, police used stun grenades, water cannons and pepper gas to disperse the crowds, as rowdy protesters threw rocks, bottles firecrackers and planks. There were reports of protesters attempting to break into city hall and overturn police cars.
According to Brig. Gen. Yoram Ohayon, deputy commander of the police’s Tel Aviv district, who was quoted by ynetnews.com, it was social activist and outside organizations who were “inciting members of the community to keep protesting after the police has already reached understandings with them.”
Ynet also carried a rare warning issued by the US Embassy in Tel Aviv.
“The Israel National Police advises the US Embassy that a demonstration planned by members of the Ethiopian Israeli community is scheduled for today, Sunday, May 3, at 3 pm in the vicinity of the Kirya [city hall], Kaplan Street, and Azrieli Towers in central Tel Aviv, near district government offices and the Israeli Defense Forces headquarters,” the message read.
“This demonstration has the potential of drawing large crowds. A similar protest held in Jerusalem on Thursday lasted several hours and turned violent, resulting in injuries, arrests, and property damage. We advise US citizens to avoid the area and to monitor local media for updates,” the Embassy went on to say.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called for calm Sunday, saying all claims must be investigated, “but there is no place for such violence and lawlessness.” He had already arranged to meet with Pakada Monday, along with representatives of the Ethiopian community, the ministries of Public Security, Social Affairs and Social Services, Aliyah and Immigrant Absorption, and Interior, and figures from the Union of Local Authorities.According to The Times of Israel, Pakada is a 21-year-old orphan who emigrated from Ethiopia with his four siblings seven years ago. He had only recently joined the Israel Defense Force.