Israel admits ‘mistakes’ in regard to angry Ethiopian community

Friday 01/05/2015
Years of simmering anger

JERUSALEM - Israel on Monday admitted "mistakes" in dealing with its Ethiopian community as top officials sought to ease tensions after clashes erupted during protests over alleged police brutality and discrimination.

Last week, years of simmering anger within the Ethiopian minority exploded into anger during a protest in Jerusalem sparked by a video showing two police assaulting an Ethiopian soldier in uniform.

A second protest in Tel Aviv on Sunday also deteriorated into violence, prompting Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to schedule urgent talks with community leaders as well as with the soldier, Damas Pakada.

The talks began around midday (0900 GMT) on Monday, public radio said.

At Sunday's protest, police used stun grenades, water cannon and pepper spray to disperse a crowd of several thousand Ethiopian Israelis.

Protesters threw stones, bottles and chairs, injuring 55 police officers.

Forty-three people were arrested, police said, and 19 would face charges of rioting and attacking officers later on Monday.

Twelve demonstrators were also hurt, police said, although the extent of their injuries was not immediately clear.

The Tel Aviv protest was one of the most violent in Israel in years, and raised fears of further confrontation with the country's 135,000-strong Ethiopian Jewish community.

The community, which immigrated in two waves in the mid-1980s and early 1990s, has long complained of political and economic marginalisation.

"We will continue to fight but without violence," said Benny Malassa, 41, who took part in Sunday's protest.

"We only want people to hear us, for the people of Israel to hear our pain," he said.

"I love this country and I want my children to have a future here, but today I feel more black than Jewish because the state has made us second-class citizens."

Ahead of the talks with Netanyahu, President Reuven Rivlin made a first gesture, describing community members as "some of our finest sons and daughters" and denouncing their treatment.

"The protesters... revealed an open and raw wound at the heart of Israeli society. The pain of a community crying out over a sense of discrimination, racism, and of being unanswered," he said.

"We have made mistakes. We did not look, we did not listen enough," Rivlin said.

Fentahun Assefa-Dawit, executive director of Tebeka, an advocacy organisation for equality and justice for Ethiopian Israelis, said resolving the community's problems should be Netanyahu's top priority.

"We call on the prime minister to take matters into his own hands," he told reporters before heading into talks with the premier.

"We demand him to bring these issues to an end, to establish a committee to investigate everything and plan a way to resolve these issues," he said.

Earlier on Monday, police went on alert after demonstrators pledged to stage another protest near Netanyahu's office, but the rally failed to materialise with less than 10 people there, a correspondent said.

It was not immediately clear whether organisers had cancelled the protest or merely delayed it.

Sunday's demonstration saw protesters blocking a major Tel Aviv highway during rush hour, with police putting their numbers at around 3,000 people.

Organisers said closer to 10,000 people took part.

For centuries, Jews in Ethiopia were largely cut off from other Jewish communities, and Israel's religious authorities only belatedly recognised them as members of the faith.

Israel began bringing them to Israel in 1984 under the Law of Return, which guarantees citizenship to all Jews. That operation was largely completed by 1991.

Since their arrival, they have consistently complained of discrimination, with complaints ranging from lower salaries than other Israelis and much higher rates of incarceration, particularly among young people.

The community's grievances where highlighted in 2013 when Israel's equivalent of the Red Cross refused to accept blood from an Ethiopian Jewish lawmaker, citing a blanket ban on donations from Israelis born in Africa.