They’re angry at the media, have lost faith in the establishment, and know that just like other Ethiopian Israelis before them, they too may pay a price for the color of their skin. The demonstrators who protested in Tel Aviv yesterday were not ‘anarchists’ — they were frightened young women and men who want to show they haven’t lost their power.
Following the police killing of 19-year-old Ethiopian-Israeli Solomon Tekah over the weekend, the Ethiopian community decided that they could sit still no longer, taking to the streets in protests that are already in their third day. Tuesday evening’s demonstrations, which took place across the country and brought Israel’s major highways and roads to a near-standstill, were labeled by the media as “violent” and “anarchic.”
Yet all that could be seen in central Tel Aviv on Tuesday night, where hundreds of people blocked Ayalon Highway, one of Israel’s central traffic hubs, was sadness and bewilderment — young Ethiopian Israelis who cannot comprehend what is happening around them, who are afraid for their future, who hope anyone will listen and that white Israelis join them.
Some of these protesters were only 10 years old when Ethiopian Israeli Yosef Salamsa was found dead following a police interrogation, or when Damas Pakada was filmed being beaten by a police officer in 2015. They saw with their own eyes how their older brothers were arrested and humiliated, and how none of the government’s promises to put an end to the violence or discrimination bore fruit.
“This protest is different from the previous ones,” said 18-year-old Y. on Tuesday night. “The last time we followed in the footsteps of our parents — to listen, to show respect. We understood that this path won’t work, so we decided to use force.” Y., who asked his name not be revealed in order to protect his identity, and who was eventually arrested during the Ayalon protest, explained that young Ethiopians are going out into the streets because they do not trust a system that is supposed to investigate police killings, yet never indicts any of the officers involved. “They close all the cases and do nothing. The officer is always acquitted. I think this protest will last, it will take time until it is over.”
“I don’t think people understand what it means to leave your house and be subject to a random search,” Y. continued. “If they did, they would have noticed when our protests were quieter. But they had no effect, so we’ll try to use force. We have nothing to lose.”
Most of the demonstrators across the country were high school students or soldiers. On social media, Ethiopian soldiers published statuses in which they say they see no reason to give back to the country: “Today it’s Solomon Tekah, tomorrow it’s me,” one soldier wrote. Y. says he decided not to join the army because of racism in Israeli society. “I do not want to serve the state. I do not want to serve a state that kills my brothers or Arabs,” he said. “Racism is racism. This shouldn’t be an Ethiopian protest — it should be everybody’s protest.”
‘Of course it is because of our skin color’
Half a year ago, after a police officer killed 24-year-old Yehuda Biadga in a suburb south of Tel Aviv, the protests were led by more well-known leaders of the Ethiopian community. At the time, demonstrators blocked Ayalon Highway and marched to Rabin Square for a vigil, a decision that left many of the younger generation disappointed. Hundreds of young Ethiopians would end up clashing with police in central Tel Aviv following the vigil.
Six months have passed, and now the younger generation is at the forefront of the protests. For hours on Tuesday, they blocked major intersections in central Tel Aviv, split up into smaller protest groups, chanted against police violence, and stopped traffic in one of the country’s most important economic hubs.
At around 8 p.m., the anger became palpable, with several protesters setting fire to a trash can. Others began dancing and chanting slogans against the police. Meanwhile, dozens of riot police looked on as water bottles were thrown at them from the crowd.
Many of the teenagers refused to speak to the press. “Anarchy,” read the top headline in one of Israel’s most popular dailies on Wednesday morning, alongside a photo of a car going up in flames. “Fuck the media, fuck you. You are to blame. They shoot and kill us because of how you cover us,” yelled one teenager at a group of photographers snapping stills of a car that had been abandoned in the middle of Ayalon, its windows smashed.
The few who were willing to speak to the media had a simple message: they have no trust in the system. “There is not a single time I step out of my house and do not encounter police officers,” said a 16-year-old demonstrator who preferred not to identify himself. “Of course it is because of our skin color. They see a black person and feel they are allowed to kill us.”
The protesters did not have a concrete list of demands, and they certainly have no expectations of anyone. “This can’t go on,” said another young demonstrator with his face covered. “They’re killing our brothers, we need to put an end to it.”
The police managed to remain restrained, allowing protesters to block Ayalon, angering many of those who were stuck in traffic, some of them for many hours.
At around 10:30 p.m., after a vehicle was set on fire, hundreds of police officers on horseback armed with clubs and stun grenades, marched onto the highway. Most of the demonstrators dispersed, although some remained and threw objects and stones at the officers and the horses. Some protesters were hit by stun grenades, and a small number were arrested. It took an hour for the police to clear the highway. By the end of the day, over 140 were detained and more than 80 wounded in clashes across the country.
Two decades since October 2000
Despite the swift arrest of the police officer who killed Tekah, the investigation is already showing worrying signs. The police have gone through numerous versions of the events that transpired on Sunday night, when Tekah was shot in a suburb of Haifa, in northern Israel. At first, police claimed Tekah had attempted a robbery, before changing their tune and saying he took part in a brawl. According to various leaks, the police cannot determine whether the bullet was fired directly at the boy or whether it ricocheted after being fired at the ground, and is considering charging the officer with negligent homicide.
Earlier this year, following the killing of Yehuda Biadga, Local Call and +972 found that the Justice Ministry department tasked with investigating police shootings had not indicted a single officer suspected of killing Israeli citizens. In May, the Police Internal Investigations Department announced it would close the case against the officer suspected of killing Biadga. Tekah is the 15th Israeli citizen to be shot dead by the police over the last half decade. Nine of those killed were Arabs, four of them have Mizrahi last names, and two are Ethiopians.
The killings cannot be divorced from the police’s larger policies of over-policing in neighborhoods with large Ethiopian or Arab populations, or the high proportion of Ethiopian teens in juvenile detention centers, and a quick look at the victims of police violence reveals precisely who these policies are aimed at. After all, when settlers throw stones at Palestinians in the West Bank, no one dares suggest police open fire at them.
In places like East Jerusalem, being of the wrong color or nationality can cost Palestinian teens their life, as was the case of Muhammad Abir, who was shot dead by the police over the weekend. The shooting officer was neither arrested nor interrogated.
In the hierarchy of groups who suffer from police violence there is always a bottom rung. Throughout Tuesday’s demonstration, it was impossible not to think about what a similar protest — and the police response — would look like had it taken place in an Arab city such as Umm al-Fahm. This is not a theoretical matter: almost 19 years have passed since the events of October 2000, when Israeli police killed 13 Palestinians, 12 of them Israeli citizens, one of whom lived in Gaza. It seems, two decades on, that not much has changed.
Yael Marom is Just Vision’s public engagement manager in Israel and a co-editor of Local Call, where a longer version of this article was originally published in Hebrew.