The scene of the shooting near Haifa, June 30, 2019.
(photo credit: MAGEN DAVID ADOM)
It’s become an all-too-familiar scenario: a trigger-happy policeman, a black victim and claims of racism and brutality.
No, we’re not talking about the United States, but right here in Israel.
The latest incident, which threatens to rouse mass protests from the Ethiopian community, took place on Sunday night in Kiryat Haim, near Haifa.
Solomon Tekah, an 18-year-old Ethiopian-Israeli, was shot and killed by an off-duty police officer.
Israel Police said the officer was trying to separate two youths who were quarreling while Tekah was at a playground with his wife and children.
“He approached the group of people that were involved in the fight and after making it clear to the group that he was a policeman, they started throwing stones at him,” the police said in a statement.
The officer, who was injured by the rocks and later hospitalized, responded by shooting his gun toward the ground. Police investigators are checking whether the bullet may have ricocheted off the ground and hit Tekah.
However, an eyewitness claimed that the officer was the one who instigated the incident, threatening the youths with his weapon. The officer was detained on Monday morning for questioning, but released to house arrest several hours later.
A few dozen people protested in front of the police station on Monday, including Tekah’s father, Verka Nazara Tekah.
“We’re looking for justice,” he said. “He only came to play with his friends,” adding that his son was raised with good values and was hoping to serve in an IDF infantry unit. “How did they take this from me?”
Tekah’s death is only the latest incident where it seems that there are two versions of the events: the police version and the how witnesses and victims saw it. It also points a finger at ongoing police behavior toward Israelis of Ethiopian descent, which is starkly different than the way non-Ethiopian Israelis are treated.
Many leaders of the Ethiopian-Israeli community – including former Likud MK Avraham Neguise – say they are unfairly targeted and are treated more harshly than other citizens.
According to police statistics, investigations into alleged assaults on police officers by Israelis of Ethiopian origin doubled from 6% to 12% of total probes from 2007 to 2015.
In 2015, Ethiopian-Israelis took to the streets en masse when video footage showed policemen beating an Ethiopian-born soldier, who said later that he was the target of a racist attack.
Police used crowd-control methods to block the protesters, including tear gas, stun grenades and fire hoses, measures that are rarely taken when other demonstrations take place that block roads, most notably the kid-glove treatment afforded haredi (ultra-Orthodox) protesters.
Another incident that brought out the outrage in Ethiopian-Israelis took place in January, when thousands of demonstrators gathered in central Tel Aviv to once again protest what they perceived as excessive police violence against them.
That demonstration was triggered by an incident in which police shot and killed Yehuda Biadga, a mentally ill Ethiopian-Israeli.
Until we know what really happened in Kiryat Haim on Sunday night, it behooves citizens on all sides of the political spectrum to withhold judgment and refrain from issuing claims of racism, police brutality and targeting of Ethiopian-Israelis.
At the same time, the police should speedily, but thoroughly, conduct its probe of Tekah’s death without prejudice or sympathy for their colleague under investigation.
The long, hot summer is just beginning. The country doesn’t need racial strife and street protests that could result in more casualties. Cooler heads must prevail to prevent the situation from getting out of control.
Nevertheless, we must acknowledge and deal with the clear fact that Ethiopian-Israelis are marginalized and discriminated against in all facets of society.
That has to change, whether it be through police training to interact more sensitively with the Ethiopian population; stronger efforts toward integration in schools, the IDF and the workforce; or a realization that Ethiopian Jews in Israel cannot be allowed to become more disenfranchised than they already feel.
It is incumbent upon all of us to work to make that change.
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