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July 17, 2019 3:22 pm

Ethiopian-Israeli Activist Calls for ‘Drastic Change’ in Police Conduct After Shooting of Teen That Set Off Street Protests

avatar by Benjamin Kerstein


Police guard next to protesters during a demonstration in Jerusalem against the death of 18-year-old Solomon Tekah of Ethiopian descent, after he was shot by an off-duty policeman, July 15, 2019. Photo: Reuters / Ronen Zvulun.

Unbeknownst to most of the world, Israel has been grappling over the last few weeks with major street protests by members of the country’s Ethiopian community, sparked by the police shooting of an unarmed teenager, Solomon Tekah, which raised concerns about police brutality and racism.

This is not the first time such unrest has erupted. In 2015, Damas Pakedah, an Ethiopian-Israeli IDF soldier, was attacked and beaten by two police officers. Massive demonstrations, mostly non-violent, broke out across Israel, with demonstrators blocking highways and filling up public squares. The calm that took hold afterward allowed the matter to pass out of the public mind, but the problem only festered until the shooting of Tekah two and a half weeks ago sent Ethiopian-Israelis out into the streets once more.

All of this may have caught most Israelis by surprise, but not Fentahun Assefa-Dawit, CEO of Tebeka, an organization that advocates for Ethiopian-Israelis through legal aid and community activism. During the 2015 protests, he appeared in a video interview hosted by the Israeli daily Haaretz. After detailing the grievances of the demonstrators, he said that authorities must take action.

“If not,” he cautioned, “I don’t want to think what’s going to happen in the future.”

Now, Assefa-Dawit told The Algemeiner this week, “what I said then unfortunately did happen.”

Fentahun Assefa-Dawit, the head of the Tebeka legal aid group. Photo: The Algemeiner.

In an interview with The Algemeiner, Assefa-Dawit expressed his worry that the situation might be reaching a breaking point.

“It’s a very, very delicate situation,” he said. “The Ethiopian-Israelis are again taking to the streets and protesting against the discrimination and police violence, the unfortunate losing of people’s lives, and therefore the situation in that case in terms of the end result has deteriorated.”

“We are on a difficult road and moving downhill,” he warned.

In particular, he said, the current atmosphere endangered some of the very real achievements the community has made since 2015.

“We have been working with the police,” he noted, “and there has been major progress in terms of police understanding of what is to be done. And many other things that are included in the program that we built together.”

“However, no matter how much progress we’re making in that form, incidents like the one that happened a couple of weeks ago will undermine the rest of the progress,” he stated.

Despite this, Assefa-Dawit said, the developments have not been fast or comprehensive enough, and now “what I see and what the Ethiopian-Israelis are saying in their protests is to cry out to the authorities to start doing anything that they can in order to solve this discrimination, this violation of their basic rights.”

Asked about the incidents of violence during the protests, which perhaps unfairly have dominated the news coverage, he was quick to emphasize, “To begin with, most of the protests are non-violent.”

Nonetheless, he understood the frustration of many Ethiopian-Israelis, especially among the young.

“When we have young citizens who have grown up knowing that police have been taking their cases very lightly and their hands are very quick on the trigger,” he said, “and a lot of discrimination and over-policing by the police officer… Whenever something like this, the killing of a citizen, happens, that intensifies the anger. Intensifies the desire to go out and cry out.”

Assefa-Dawit also believes “there are some — although the young Ethiopian-Israelis are out there to show their dissatisfaction, their anger, their crying out for a better future — there are perhaps some politicians and other groups who want to take advantage of this and put gasoline on the fire.”

“Therefore demonstrations and protests, these peaceful protests, in no way should turn violent,” he said. “Because that would not serve the purpose of the protests. At the same time, it would be a tragedy if the responsible authorities” failed to live up to their duties.

Regarding those responsibilities, Assefa-Dawit repeatedly stressed the need for the authorities to discipline and punish those police officers who commit crimes against members of the Ethiopian-Israeli community, singling out the police internal affairs units for particular criticism.

“The incident that ignited the whole thing is the unfortunate killing of Solomon Tekah,” he said, “but there are other things that have happened” — in particular, what he called the internal affairs units’ tendency to “cover up” misconduct by police officers.

“Although we’ve had many incidents like that, most of the police officers who committed the crimes, committed the incidents, were let free without there being any punishment,” he asserted.

What the situation needed, he said, was for the police investigation units to “put in place some way of punishing and putting sanctions on those police officers to deter other police officers.”

“At the same time,” he noted, “we are also working very hard together with the police so that there will be sanctions, not from the criminal point of view — because the criminal side is being investigated by the police investigation units — but from the ethical point of view.”

These responsibilities also extended, he pointed out, to the top of the political establishment. Having met with senior government ministers, Assefa-Dawit believes their intentions are “genuine,” but there must be a “dramatic change of policy.” What the government is doing now, he posited, is “like keeping on doing the same thing and expecting a different result.”

When he and other activists met with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, he said, they demanded an independent government body — perhaps a prime ministerial committee — to investigate police misconduct and especially the internal affairs units.

There must be, he emphasized, “very drastic change.”

Asked whether he was optimistic about real change occurring, Assefa-Dawit admitted, “At this moment, it’s very difficult to be optimistic. But we need to be optimistic because, as we say, we cannot throw the baby out with the bathwater.”

“There has been a lot of progress,” he said. “There are a lot of positive things happening here in Israel in terms of the progress and integration of Ethiopian-Israelis into Israeli society.”

Nonetheless, he declared, the Ethiopian-Israeli community was no longer prepared to settle for half-measures.

“Our expectations are that the authorities and society will act and behave the way a normal democracy and a Jewish state and society should behave,” he said.

“And we are here,” he stated. “And not because someone is doing us a favor. We are here because we have a right. And we will be working and fighting and struggling for that very basic right of living in our land peacefully.”

“And for that, we have to be very optimistic,” he said.

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