Thousands of angry Ethiopian Jews fought their way through police lines and besieged the Prime Minister's office in Jerusalem yesterday, during a protest sparked off by the revelation that the Israeli national blood bank routinely destroyed blood donated by Ethiopians, on the grounds that they might have Aids.
The riot started when police and border guards, surprised by the size of the demonstration, tried to keep the crowd of 20,000 away from the block housing the office of the Prime Minister, Shimon Peres. One demonstrator's banner read: "Although our skin is black our blood is as red as yours and we are just as Jewish." A hundred or so police tried to hold back the demonstrators, but were pushed back. Finally, the Ethiopians broke through, hurling a metal barricade to one side. A border guard tried to hold the line by firing clouds of tear gas.
I was knocked to the ground by police recoiling before the advancing Ethiopians, and then helped up by a border guard. As he did so we were engulfed in tear gas, which induced coughing and retching and made the skin on our faces burn. By the time I could see again, the police had retreated, although an armoured vehicle with water cannon was spraying the crowd. Many Ethiopians put up umbrellas and marched up the street into the car park in front of the Prime Minister's office, where the cabinet was meeting.
The discovery last week that the blood they donated was being thrown away has become a potent symbol of the discrimination suffered by about 60,000 Ethiopian Jews, airlifted to Israel in 1984-85 and 1991. "Many of them felt they were part of Israeli society. That is why the pain is so intense," said Nomi Arbel, an Israeli who is not Ethiopian but who joined the demonstration. "They feel hurt. They could at least have been told the truth."
The truth is that the officials of Magen David Adom, the Israeli equivalent of the Red Cross, responsible for the blood bank, believed the incidence of HIV was 50 times higher among Ethiopians than other Israelis. They decided to destroy the blood, but keep it a secret. Ethiopians say they appear more likely to be carrying HIV because they are tested more often than other Israelis.
Mekonnen Zenaneh, a writer and broadcaster who came from Addis Ababa two years ago, said: "They threw away our blood - this is inhuman. Ethiopians feel that there is discrimination at every level, in education and in the military, that we are not equal."
The police used enough force to anger the demonstrators but not to deter them. By the steps of the Bank of Israel they used tear gas grenades and water cannon. In reply, demonstrators hurled rocks.
"If we hadn't fired tear gas, they would have captured the Prime Minister's office and ministers would have been attacked by thousands of wild youths," said Arye Amit, commander of the Jerusalem police, although much of the violence appeared to be provoked by his own men. Last week the former US president Jimmy Carter accused police of "deliberately trying to intimidate voters" in the Palestinian elections.
The violence will only confirm Ethiopians in the belief that they are the objects of discrimination. Smadar Staspai, 17, a student from Kiryat Gat who went to the demonstration, said: "We are meant to be going into the army soon, but now we feel the country doesn't deserve it. We want to go back to Ethiopia."
Elisheva Darare, a school friend, said: "No, we love Israel. This breaks our hearts, but it is all because of our colour."
A third woman, Dedi Zudehir said: "In Ethiopia they hated us because we are Jews, but they don't like us here either. They want us to work in factories. Twenty [Ethiopians] killed themselves in the army because they were humiliated."
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