Ethiopian Jews Protest in Tel Aviv Over Police Brutality and Racism

Tel Aviv (HAN) May 3, 2015 – Public Diplomacy, Regional humanitarian Security News. By: ISABEL KERSHNER. Uri Muallem, 30, had been drinking when he stepped out of a family gathering at a wedding hall in 2010 to relieve himself on the sidewalk. That was when his encounter with the police began.

A slight man, barely 5 feet tall, Mr. Muallem, from the Tel Aviv suburb of Rishon Lezion, said three burly officers fired pepper spray into his eyes and handcuffed him. He then spent three days in jail and was sentenced to four months of community work “for attacking a police officer,” he said.

Eli Malassa, 33, from the desert town of Netivot in southern Israel, recalled that when he was performing his compulsory military service about 15 years ago, a police officer accused him of stealing the uniform he was wearing and beat him.

Both men came to Israel from Ethiopia with their families in 1991 on a secret airlift known as Operation Solomon, which brought 14,000 Ethiopian Jews to Israel within 36 hours and was cause for an outpouring of national celebration at the time.

On Sunday, Mr. Muallem and Mr. Malassa joined thousands of young Ethiopian-Israelis and sympathizers in a demonstration that blocked main thoroughfares of Tel Aviv, paralyzing the heart of the city for hours. On Sunday evening, the demonstration took a violent turn, with protesters hurling stones and clashing with the police in Rabin Square. Officers responded with stun grenades and water canons, according to the police.

A similar demonstration in Jerusalem on Thursday ended much the same way after protesters hurled stones and bottles at the police. Some here are dubbing the cry of this young, angry generation of Ethiopian-Israelis as Israel’s Baltimore or Ferguson, Mo., referring to the tensions that have roiled those cities against the backdrop of frictions between African-Americans and the police.

The trigger for the rage now spilling onto Israel’s streets came just over a week ago, when a police officer was caught on a security camera beating an Ethiopian-Israeli soldier in uniform in the city of Holon, in the Tel Aviv suburbs, for no apparent reason.

“Enough of racism, enough of violence!” the crowd in Tel Aviv chanted, the words rhyming in Hebrew. “A violent police officer should be in prison,” they shouted. Some raised Israeli flags or crossed their fists in the air. During the initial, peaceful part of the demonstration, the police halted traffic and looked on as activists including Mr. Muallem, wearing fashionably ripped jeans with his long hair slicked back, sat down in the middle of a main junction during what should have been the afternoon rush hour.

In an effort to restore calm, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel said he would hold a meeting on Monday with representatives of the Ethiopian community, including the soldier who was beaten, Damas Pakado. Mr. Netanyahu said the meeting would also be attended by the nation’s police chief and representatives of several ministries, including Internal Security, Social Welfare and Immigrant Absorption.

The police chief, Yohanan Danino, has already announced that the officer filmed beating Mr. Pakado has been fired. He also established a team made up of police representatives and Ethiopian community leaders that will try to establish better relations by first examining complaints against the police.

Guy Ben-Porat, an associate professor in the department of public policy and administration at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, has been researching relations between the police and different sectors of Israeli society for the past three years. He said that Ethiopian-Israelis perceive themselves, much like African-Americans in the United States, as suffering from “overpolicing,” including racial profiling; being stopped and arrested more often than other, “white” Israelis; and being treated with a tougher hand.

“Ethiopian-Israeli citizens strongly believe that they are discriminated against and harassed,” Mr. Ben-Porat said. “Young Ethiopian males in particular feel the police are out to get them and that they won’t get justice,” he added.

The Israeli correction authorities do not provide ethnic or racial breakdowns of prisoners, but Ethiopian activists recently told a parliamentary committee that about 30 percent of the juveniles in Israeli prisons were of Ethiopian descent. A government official who asked not to be named to discuss a politically sensitive topic said the figure was actually about 15 percent to 20 percent. Yet that is still disproportionately high considering that Ethiopian-Israelis make up less than 2 percent of the country’s population of about 8 million.

Micky Rosenfeld, a spokesman for the Israeli police, rejected the accusations of police racism and comparisons to Baltimore or Ferguson.

The current protest was “understandably” focusing on the police, he said, after the broad publicity given to the beating of the soldier. “But this is not a police issue. There are social and economic issues,” Mr. Rosenfeld added.

This is not the first time that this generation of Ethiopians who were born or grew up in Israel have taken to the streets. In 2012, Ethiopian activists set up a protest tent outside the prime minister’s residence in Jerusalem to draw attention to what they described as unofficial racism and discrimination in Israeli society. Ethiopians do not have their own political party, though a few have been elected to Parliament. In the Knesset that was elected in March, a member of the governing Likud Party is of Ethiopian descent.

Still, despite significant government resources allocated to aid their integration, young Ethiopian-Israelis said they were still struggling to be accepted.

“We are not our parents’ generation, who remained silent,” said Dana Sibaho, 29, a bookkeeper from Netivot who participated in Sunday’s protest. “We are the generation that won’t remain silent any longer,” she said. “The time has come to take our rights, by force if need be.” New york times

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