The lawyer for an off-duty cop who shot and killed 19-year-old Solomon Tekah earlier this week, sparking nationwide protests by the Ethiopian-Israeli community, said the officer faced “an imminent threat to his life.”
In a statement to the press on Thursday, attorney Yair Nedshi, who represents the officer, said his client “found himself in a very serious situation in which his life and the lives of his family were in real danger. If he hadn’t acted as he did, it’s possible my client would no longer be alive, and his family would have been harmed.”
He added: “This tragic event had nothing to do with the skin color or heritage of the deceased. My client did not intend to hit [Tekah], the shot was meant to deter.”
The teen was fatally shot by the officer in Haifa on Sunday, sparking demonstrations against racism and police brutality across the country.
Community leaders and others have said there is a pattern of racism and abuse by police toward Ethiopian-Israelis, despite repeated promises to root out the problem.
On Monday and Tuesday, protesters across Israel blocked roads, burned tires and denounced what they say is systemic discrimination against the Ethiopian-Israeli community. The demonstrations escalated after Tekah’s funeral Tuesday, when some protesters set vehicles on fire, overturned a police car and clashed with officers and others who tried to break through their makeshift roadblocks.
The police said more than 110 officers were wounded in the clashes, including from stones and bottles hurled at them, and 136 protesters were arrested for rioting.
The Tekah family asked for calm on Wednesday, urging an end to the public protests until the seven-day shiva mourning period ends on Sunday.
“When the shiva is over, we will hold our rightful and justified protest in an organized way, in coordination with all the relevant parties and without disrupting public order, and certainly without violence,” the Tekahs said through a family spokesperson.
But the relative calm that settled over the community and the country since Wednesday has not removed the danger to the officer and his family, the officer’s attorney said Thursday.
The officer — who was released by a court to house arrest — and his family have been taken into protective custody amid fears that they will be targets of violence, Nedshi told reporters at his Haifa office.
“They are disconnected from their regular environment and are under constant armed guard,” he said.
“When [the officer] watches television and sees what’s going on, he’s afraid, for his life, for his family’s lives. No conclusion has been reached [in the investigation], but on social media my client’s character has been trampled, he’s been declared a murderer,” he added.
Nedshi called on the public to let the police and Justice Ministry investigators conclude their probe. “In the name of my client and his family, I ask that this march of folly, this witch hunt, end. Give law enforcement a chance to finish the investigation and reach the truth.”
He said his client “has expressed regret” for the incident, and wants to return to service in the police force. “Of course he regrets the tragic results [of the incident]. He didn’t want this, not the tragic way the incident concluded and not how it’s affected his family since.”
Initial reports from the Justice Ministry’s Police Internal Investigations Department, an outside body that investigates cops, seems to corroborate the officer’s claim that he did not aim at the Ethiopian youth. Investigators say the bullet was fired at the ground, but ricocheted upward and struck the left side of Tekah’s chest, tearing into his aorta.
In a bid to restore peace, Ethiopian Jewish spiritual leaders, also known as kessim, on Thursday held a special prayer session at the Western Wall in Jerusalem and met with Israel’s chief rabbis, where the assembled leaders joined together to call for calm and highlight the discrimination experienced by the Ethiopian community.
At the meeting with the chief rabbis, Rabbi Reuven Wabashat, who serves as the top rabbi of the Ethiopian community recognized by Israel’s Chief Rabbinate, cited traditional aphorisms proclaiming Jews “responsible for each other,” and praised the “legitimate” and nonviolent part of the protests.
Sephardic Chief Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef called for “calm on all sides.”
Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi David Lau urged “that we all remember that we’re all Jews, whether we were born in Israel, Europe, Spain [a reference to Sephardi Jews from the Arab world], or in Ethiopia, we’re all Jews, and as Jews we’re all brethren. Let us find a way,” he said.
The chief rabbis also promised to appeal to law enforcement authorities to show restraint in dealing with the protests, and to be lenient with the protesters who were arrested this week.
Ethiopian Jews, who trace their lineage to the ancient Israelite tribe of Dan, began arriving in large numbers in the 1980s, when Israel secretly airlifted them to the Holy Land to save them from war and famine in the Horn of Africa.