Associated Press — May 5, 2015
Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has met with the Ethiopian Jewish soldier whose beating by two police officers, captured on CCTV, sparked days of violent unrest fuelled by decades of repression suffered by the minority community.
Netanyahu met Israeli soldier Damas Pakada a day after thousands demonstrators, who saw the footage as evidence of police racism and brutality, clashed violently with officers on the streets of Tel Aviv.
In a tweet on the prime minister’s Twitter account accompanying a picture of himself and Mr Pakada embracing, Netanyahu wrote: ‘I was shocked by the pictures. We cannot accept it, we will change things.’
The clashes reflected widespread frustration in the Ethiopian community which, three decades after it first arrived in Israel, has become an underclass plagued by poverty, crime and unemployment.
Tensions rose after an incident a week ago in a Tel Aviv suburb where a CCTV camera captured a scuffle in an alleyway between two policemen and a uniformed soldier of Ethiopian descent.
Two officers were suspended on suspicion of using excessive force. Israeli politicians, stung by community leaders’ comparison of the incident to police violence against blacks in the United States, scrambled to defuse tensions.
But many of their pleas have fallen on deaf ears. On Sunday the protesters shut down a major highway in Tel Aviv, hurled stones and bottles at police officers and overturned a squad car.
They were dispersed with tear gas, water cannons and stun grenades. More than 60 people were wounded and 40 arrested.
While Ethiopian Israelis have held demonstrations in the past, the protests have rarely turned violent, and never on the scale of Sunday’s unrest.
The violence caught much of the country, including the government, off guard. According to Israel’s ceremonial president Reuven Rivlin, the country was seeing ‘the pain of a community crying out over a sense of discrimination, racism, and of being unanswered,’
‘We must look directly at this open wound. We have erred. We did not look, and we did not listen enough,’ he said.
‘We are not strangers to one another, we are brothers, and we must not deteriorate into a place we will all regret.’
Ethiopian Jews begin migrating to Israel three decades ago and struggled greatly as they made the transition from an impoverished and developing country into high-tech Israel.