Violence erupted on the streets of Tel Aviv on Sunday as a demonstration by Ethiopian Israelis protesting what they said was police brutality against their community spiraled out of control.
Firing stun grenades and tear gas, police in riot gear or mounted on horses battled enraged demonstrators, who hurled glass bottles and started fires in the heart of the city while threatening to break into City Hall.
In scenes more commonly associated with the West Bank than with Israel’s hip beach city, ambulances raced with the injured from both sides as explosions, sirens, smoke and screams filled the air.
Sunday’s demonstration began tensely but peacefully as hundreds, then thousands of protesters, mostly Ethiopian Israelis, marched waving national flags and placards against racism and police brutality and calling for equality. A similar protest in Jerusalem on Thursday turned violent, and police initially tried to avoid engagement during Sunday's protest.
In a demonstration organizers said was aimed at bringing the plight of one of Israel’s most marginalized communities to the heart of mainstream Israel, protesters blocked the Ayalon Freeway and brought traffic in the busy metropolis to a standstill.
After five hours of a restrained standoff, the peace collapsed as police moved to open the highway and disperse the crowds, pushing them into the city, where matters deteriorated swiftly despite repeated calls of both police and protest leaders for restraint.
At least 23 police officers and 7 protesters were injured. Police said more than 40 people were arrested
The highest ranks of Israeli police, including Commissioner Yohanan Danino, were on the scene. “We did everything to enable protest but we will not condone vandalism and violence,” Danino said. “We will pursue those who used violence.”
During a lull in the clashes, when both sides appeared to be regrouping, Pnina Tamano-Shata, a former lawmaker, used a loudspeaker and chanted a slogan from the biblical Book of Psalms: “Justice, justice you shall pursue.” Dozens of young men sat on the ground behind her, and the violence appeared to subside.
One demonstrator, who did not give his name, faced television cameras and, cloaked in an Israeli flag, said Israel uses the Ethiopian Israelis as cannon fodder.
“We fought in Gaza. We fought in Lebanon before that. We fight and die for the country, which treats us like third-rate citizens. Evidently, our blood is only good for wars,” he said, vowing that the protests would continue for as long as it takes to achieve equality and justice.
The protests were triggered by a video that emerged a week ago showing two policemen pouncing on Damas Pakada, an Israeli soldier of Ethiopian descent, and beating him with no immediately apparent reason while he was standing by his bicycle on a street in the central city of Holon.
The video, taken from a security camera on a nearby business, circulated in social media and swiftly sparked outrage. Ethiopian Israelis have long complained of harsh treatment at the hands of police as well as discrimination by the Israeli establishment.
More than three decades after the first daring Mossad operations that brought Ethiopian Jews to Israel, the community of immigrants and native Israelis now numbers close to 140,000. Modest inroads have been seen some Ethiopian Jews make it to the forefront of public life in Israel as lawmakers, journalists or doctors, but as a whole, the community still struggles for equality and integration into Israeli society.
Just over half live below the poverty line. They are underrepresented in public service and overrepresented in jail. Forty percent of those held in the Ofek prison -- a jail for minors -- are of Ethiopian extraction, far above their 2% representation in Israeli society.
The native Israelis born to immigrant families serve in the military -- once the great equalizer for Jewish youth -- but activists say they still get bounced from nightclubs, insulted on public transportation and harshly treated by police. The fact that Damas Pakada was wearing an army uniform when he was beaten by police only adds insult to injury, they say.
Danino recently announced plans to appoint a committee to review cases against Ethiopian Israelis, and reportedly intends to close cases found to involve discrimination or mistreatment.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has said he will meet with the beaten soldier on Monday and convene a discussion with Ethiopian community leaders as well as the police commissioner and government authorities who oversee immigration and social welfare.
On Thursday, as protesters neared his official residence in Jerusalem, Netanyahu released a statement condemning the beating captured on video and declaring that those responsible would be held accountable.
“The immigrants from Ethiopia and their families are dear to us,” he said, pledging that the state would do more to “ease their integration into society.”
But protesters were not impressed. One woman noted to television cameras that it took Netanyahu nearly a full week to condemn the incident. “Where was he all those days? This pains me.”
One of the police officers caught on camera was immediately suspended from police duties and is currently under investigation by the Justice Ministry.
Sobelman is a special correspondent