Ethiopian Jews are facing prejudice and police brutality in Tel Aviv

On the gleaming white beaches of Tel Aviv, pairs of holidaying Israelis expertly swat rubber balls back and forth as the Mediterranean rolls gently at their feet. Even with a flight of Israeli Defense Force choppers churning towards Gaza above, war and violence seem a world away. Yet, only a few days earlier, dozens of explosions could be heard reverberating across the city's centre.

Over the past three decades, Tel Aviv residents have endured Saddam Hussein's Scud missile strikes, Hamas rocket attacks and a series of suicide bombings, but this bombardment was different. On 3 May Israeli Jews fired on Israeli Jews as the country's police force cracked down on hundreds of protesting Israelis of Ethiopian descent.

Around 3,000 Ethiopian-Israelis and their supporters had taken to the streets to protest against police discrimination after two officers were caught on camera beating a uniformed Ethiopian-Israeli soldier, 21-year-old Damas Pakedeh, seemingly without provocation. The marchers remained peaceful until nightfall, when the two sides clashed in Rabin Square. Baton-wielding officers on horseback charged at activists and police used water cannons to hose down those standing nearest their armoured vehicles. "The police started to act crazy, they came with all their horses and they started to beat people," says Kasa Getoo, a 27-year-old Ethiopian Israeli activist who joined the demonstration with her mother and younger siblings. "After the smoke grenades I couldn't breathe. I called my mother and told her it was time to leave, it was too dangerous."

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Fifty-seven police officers and dozens of demonstrators were injured in the riots that ensued, stunning the Israeli public and sparking a widespread debate about the need to address a growing sense of frustration among the Ethiopian population.

Getoo was only three years old when the Israeli government airlifted her, and more than 14,000 other Ethiopian Jews, from Addis Ababa in 1991. With the Marxist government of president Mengistu Haile Mariam about to fall to a rival faction after a bitter civil war, Israel organised an enormous evacuation, negotiated by then US President George Bush Snr. Thirty-five military and civilian aircraft flew 40 flights in a 36-hour covert mission known as Operation Solomon.

Taking almost the entire Jewish community out of Ethiopia, the operation effectively completed the work of a joint IDF and CIA operation that airlifted 8,000 Ethiopian Jews from Sudan at the height of the Ethiopian famine between November 1984 and January 1985, code-named Operation Moses. Diplomatic pressure from Sudan's Arab allies had put an end to those flights before they could finish the evacuation. Thousands died trying to make the journey to the Sudanese refugee camps in the 1980s and again to Addis Ababa in 1991.

"My parents started to walk four years before they were taken from the refugee camp in Addis Ababa," Getoo says.

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"The first time [they tried to get to Israel] they discovered that the airlifts had already gone, so they went back."

The operation's success was greeted with celebration by many in Israel, but not all. Swathes of the religious community continue to debate whether the Ethiopian Beta Israel sect, who practiced an early form of Judaism, are truly Jewish at all. In the years since their arrival, Ethiopian-Israelis have suffered a range of discriminatory treatment. There have been scandals about their blood donations being dumped and allegations that female Ethiopian-Israelis were targeted for long-term birth control injections to keep the number of black Israelis down. Assimilation programmes have stripped the community of aspects of their cultural identity – even changing Ethiopian names to Jewish ones – while separating them from the rest of Israeli society.

Today the government counts around 136,000 Ethiopian-Israelis living in the country, making up about 2% of the population. Just under half were born in Israel. While the first generation focused on integration, their children want to be able to embrace dual heritage and an end to their treatment as immigrants. "When my parents came they said we were not Jewish enough, now they say we are not Israeli enough," explains Getoo. "But before we came here there was a whole history, a whole life, and I don't agree to delete it."

Long-term frustrations have been exacerbated with the recent arrival of new, non-Jewish refugees and migrants from Africa. Ethiopian-Israelis are lumped together with other Africans and increasingly targeted by police.

"Of course what's at the bottom of all of this is deeply ingrained racism in Israel," says Adi Drori-Avraham, Amnesty International Israel's Refugee and Migrants researcher.

"There's a hierarchy of racism, in which people of Ethiopian origin are only slightly higher up than recent African refugees – because they're Jews." Ethiopian-Israelis argue that this hierarchy keeps them out of the best jobs and living in the poorest areas. Parliamentarian Pnina Tamano-Shata came to Israel aged three during Operation Moses and is the only Ethiopian-Israeli elected to the Knesset. "People sometimes think because you are black you are of less value, if you are black you don't have a mind," she says. "But it doesn't bother me when someone calls me a negro. What bothers me is when the government makes decisions for us."

The newly-formed coalition of Israel's long-serving prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, has pledged to find a way to address the issues.

"In the coming weeks, a comprehensive programme proposal to promote the integration of Ethiopian immigrants and their children into Israeli society will be submitted to government," said Oshrat Hazan- Asulin, a spokesperson for the Ministry of Immigrant Absorption, via email.

Ethiopian Jews are facing prejudice and police brutality in Tel Aviv |