Angered by police killing, Ethiopian-Israelis demand change

Woreka Teka sits in a mourning tent and accepts the hugs of supporters, but begged off when asked about the night his 19-year-old son was killed by a police officer’s bullet.

“I want the demonstrations to keep going, but not violently, until they charge the policeman who shot him,” the 58-year-old said in his native Amharic language through a translator as he and his wife sat near a picture of his smiling son.

Solomon Teka’s death has been a deeply personal tragedy for his family, but for the wider Ethiopian-Israeli community, he has become a symbol as well.

Violent protests erupted in areas across the country after he was killed on Sunday.

In Kiryat Ata, near Teka’s home in the neighbouring community of Kiryat Haim in northern Israel, demonstrators burned tyres and blocked roads, the burn marks on the street still visible.

Teka’s death has brought renewed attention to the longstanding grievances of the Ethiopian-Israeli community, who say they are discriminated against and targeted by police because of their skin colour.

The community now numbers around 140 000, of whom some 50 000 were born in Israel. They are Jewish, but say they are in many cases still seen as outsiders.

‘They don’t know’

One young man gathered with others at a junction in Kiryat Ata fired off an expletive against police when a journalist approached.

A young woman nearby waved him off and spoke of wanting to see “people stop dying because of the colour of their skin.”

“The cops don’t understand what we’re all trying to explain to them,” said Lihi Achdari, 21.

“They don’t know what it is, that people look at you different because of the colour of your skin.”

The protests turned violent in parts of the country, with police targeted with stones, bottles and firebombs.

Police say more than 140 people have been arrested and 111 officers wounded.

Early on, police kept their distance to avoid stoking tensions, but beginning late Tuesday they took a tougher stance and began clearing protesters from roads.

On Wednesday night, the number of protesters and the level of violence were vastly reduced.

Police said Teka was killed when an off-duty officer saw a fight between youths and tried to break it up.

After the officer identified himself, the youths threw stones at him and he opened fire at Teka after “feeling that his life was in danger”, a police statement said.

Other young men and a passer-by said the policeman was not attacked, Israeli media reported.

The officer is under house arrest while an investigation continues.

Unique history

Ethiopian-Israelis arrived in the country as part of a unique history.

Their ancestors were cut off from the Jewish world for centuries before eventually being recognised by Israeli religious authorities as Jews.

Many arrived in two separate Israeli airlifts in 1984 and 1991.

Jews of Middle Eastern descent have faced their own forms of discrimination in Israel, where the government was for many years dominated by those of European descent.

But Ethiopian-Israelis face special challenges due to their relatively recent arrival and other factors, including the simple fact of their skin colour.

Teka’s death was not the first time a police shooting led to protests.

In January, thousands of Ethiopian-Israelis demonstrated after a young man was shot dead as he allegedly rushed at a police officer with a knife.

His mother said she had called the police to subdue her son, who reportedly suffered from a mental condition, and alleged they used excessive force.

‘The way they treat us’

There have been many success stories of Ethiopian-Israelis, said Yaakov Frohlich of Fidel, a non-profit organisation that helps the community integrate into society.

But discrimination combined with the struggles of families who arrived poor from a vastly different country have limited others’ advancement, he said.

The problem of what Frohlich and others call “overpolicing” of the Ethiopian-Israeli community has also created frustration.

Teka’s killing was in some ways the “straw that broke the camel’s back,” Frohlich said.

“You have a generation now who grew up in Israel who realised that by keeping it inside you don’t really get anywhere with it.”

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu trod carefully during the protests, calling Teka’s death a “tragedy” and acknowledging problems needed to be addressed before eventually declaring that violent demonstrations would not be accepted.

At an Ethiopian restaurant next to the protest site in Kiryat Ata, a suburban-style town of strip malls and industrial areas near the port city of Haifa, Ora Yakov said she supports the protests’ message but not violence.

The daughter of the restaurant owners, she said she is studying law to work to defend her community.

“It’s not only the kid that was killed,” said the 23-year-old, alleging young Ethiopians face regular police harassment.

“It’s also the way they treat us every day.”

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Mike Smith
Mike Smith 1
Mike Smith is the AFP news editor for Israel and the Palestinian Territories and author of Boko Haram: Inside Nigeria's Unholy War.

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