By Batsheva Sobelmah, May 5, 2015, The Age (Australia)
Jerusalem: Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has expressed shock over a videotaped police beating of an Ethiopian Israeli man, and promised action to improve relations with the Ethiopian Jewish community. Mr Netanyahu met with the beating victim, an Israel Defence Forces soldier who appeared in the video to have done nothing to warrant the beating. He later tweeted an image of their embrace.
Anger over the beating prompted a large demonstration in Tel Aviv on Sunday that degenerated into violent clashes with police.
“I was shocked by the pictures that I saw. We cannot accept this,” Mr Netanyahu said, referring to the video, and repeating the message in his tweet. “We cannot accept inflammatory rhetoric, racism, looking down on people and the beating of an IDF soldier.”
He spoke after meeting with Damas Pakada, the soldier whose treatment at the hands of police has galvanised the Ethiopian community, which is still struggling to fit in more than three decades after arriving in the country.
The incident has prompted activists for Israelis of Ethiopian descent to delineate a long list of problems the community of nearly 140,000 faces, including prejudice on the part of society and police and discrimination in employment and other spheres of life.
While calling for police reform, Mr Netanyahu also acknowledged the need for comprehensive policies to address the wider needs of Israelis of Ethiopian descent.
“There is a deep problem here that needs to be resolved. This outburst is the result of genuine distress,” he said. In addition to meeting with Mr Pakada, Mr Netanyahu held an expanded discussion with community leaders, activists and government ministers. He said a ministerial committee would be appointed to address the issue.
As a soldier in mandatory service, Mr Pakada was barred from participating in the protests, but told the prime minister he opposed the violence from both sides. Activists continued to accuse police of excessive force and demanded a full-blown investigation into Sunday’s events, and police deployed heavily in Jerusalem for another demonstration that was tense but peaceful.
National police commissioner Yohanan Danino expressed regret about Mr Pakada’s beating, and emphasised that one officer involved was dismissed immediately. The video, he said, “speaks for itself”. It was not immediately clear why one officer was singled out for swift punishment but not the other.
Young Israelis of Ethiopian descent were no strangers to police violence, said Fentahun Assefa-Dawit, executive director of the Tebeka advocacy organisation. “The difference this time is the footage. Now all those youths have a case, they have proof,” he said.
Elsewhere, Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman announced on Monday that he will not join Mr Netanyahu’s government, dealing a blow to the incumbent’s emerging coalition in the 11th hour of negotiations. “We are going to serve the people from the opposition,” he said of his six-seat right-wing Yisrael Beitenu party.
Mr Netanyahu must present his government by Wednesday night Israel time. Mr Lieberman’s rejection means Mr Netanyahu may be reduced to a slim majority of 61 seats in Israel’s 120-seat parliament, the Knesset.
Mr Netanyahu’s Likud party signed its first two coalition agreements on Wednesday last week, with the centre-right Kulanu and the ultra-Orthodox party United Torah Judaism. Mr Lieberman cited promises made in those agreements as grounds for not joining the coalition. His party had pushed hard for an end to ultra-Orthodox Torah students’ exemption from compulsory military service.
The next Netanyahu government would not be a nationalist one “but the personification of opportunism”, he charged.
According to recent local media reports, Mr Lieberman holds a grudge against Mr Netanyahu, blaming him for an ongoing police investigation into allegations of corruption by senior members of his party.