Israeli police violence against Ethiopian anti-violence march
During my visit to Israel to collect material for my new book, it turned out there would be an unexpected chapter.
I am writing this article without looking at a single news report from any news channel or reading a single word on social media. I don’t want to be biased. I was there and saw it all with my own eyes.
Last night, Sunday 3 May, I arrived in Rabin Square to witness a throng of over 10,000 people who were singing and chanting for change. “Medina mishtara” was the call – “police state”. They were calling for no violence.
Their reason to come out on to the streets was, first, in reaction to recent violence by the police against an Ethiopian named Damas Pakada. He was caught on camera having been beaten by police and it was the last straw.
Another reason is that over 51 per cent of the Ethiopians are being watched by the Revaha – the Israeli social services. This is not unique in Israel. There is a huge child trafficking problem in the country, with approximately 33 children taken into private institutions daily. The Ethiopian people serve in the army, risking their lives, yet in everyday life are not even allowed into nightclubs.
On 30 April, a thousand of them marched in Jerusalem. The sight of demonstrations or protests is rare in Israel. The last time Israelis protested in large numbers was in March 2011 over the price of cottage cheese.
There was a slight envy in some of the Israelis I spoke to. They recognised the problems and felt they suffered from the same. Yet, despite their own constant complaining they are a passive people when it comes to demonstrating for their rights. There was a festive atmosphere as people were singing, waving the Israeli and Ethiopian flags and showing their solidarity.
People were choking and struggling to breathe as others helped them. We could smell the pungency in the air. The atmosphere was menacing.
Together with my friend, the journalist and human rights activist Moti Leybel, we threaded our way to the centre of the crowd, where TV cameras were filming and interviewing people. The square was full, and the steps up to City Hall were crammed with police. As we started to walk, there was a bottle of water thrown at the police horses, which then kicked one of the demonstrators. Suddenly firecrackers were thrown down and the crowd quickly dispersed.
The police were gathering in small groups, lined up in pairs of at least ten or twenty. My friend warned me to keep our distance from the police. As an English woman with a European mentality, it was counter instinctive but in this situation I followed the advice. We moved to a corner of the square, where people were still singing and chanting. As a gesture of submission, they held their arms high above their heads with their hands crossed.
The police were organising themselves, clearly with a strategy to divide the crowds. They lined up in rows on the street. As we stood at the corner, suddenly people were running out of a very small café, tears streaming down their eyes. Tear gas had been thrown into the building.
Our video proves this, yet all the media and police are reporting that there was no tear gas at all. We didn’t see how the tear gas had been thrown, but it was clear that it wasn’t the Ethiopians who had done it. People were choking and struggling to breathe as others helped them. We could smell the pungency in the air. The atmosphere was menacing.
Suddenly, at least 20 police charged down a side street after a couple of kids. Firecrackers were being thrown and smoke filled the air. I have never been so close to this kind of activity and found myself jumping each time they landed. People were being hurt and the corner became a frenzy of bodies trying to find cover. Finally the police returned, dragging one young man with them. We managed to film it.
The atmosphere was like a war zone and there were small eruptions of violence. It had been at least seven hours since the march had begun by closing the motorway and various roads. The police intimidation had finally cracked a few people. Stones and sticks were thrown, and we heard that a police car had been overturned. Israelis were standing by and watching, and many agreed that Israelis too suffered from police brutality and the welfare state, with both institutions acting above the law.
The events of last night can be compared to the Baltimore riots last month in the USA. The black people are tired of being oppressed, treated as third rate, and suffering apartheid and constant police interference. The state of Israel calls upon Jews around to come to Israel – “make aliyah” and be safe. The Ethiopian people are Jewish. They came on the basis of these promises, which have all been broken.
Something rotten is happening to the Jewish state. The people are suffering from corruption of extraordinary proportions and seem powerless to change it. Many Israelis talk of the holocaust of today. Over one third of the people are living in poverty, and there’s talk of only 10 per cent with any real money. But they’re afraid to tell the world they are in trouble.
As Binyamin Netanyahu presses on to form a new government, it seems clear the Ethiopian people are not going to give up on their rights.
I left the demonstration with the memory of a police force of immense brutality. Unlike in England, I don’t feel I would ever approach them for help. I had the constant sense that at any point the police would sweep through the crowds with the intention of hurting us.
There appeared to be a lot of support for the Ethiopians from Israelis – some signs were held up saying: “We are all Ethiopian.”