It's been a month since the online video clip of an Israeli policeman seen beating an Israel Defense Forces soldier of Ethiopian descent shocked the entire country and aroused the anger of Israel's Ethiopian community, which took to the streets en masse to demonstrate against police brutality and discrimination.
While the soldier involved in the incident, Damas Pakada, became the hero of the Ethiopian community, was warmly embraced by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and shared his side of the story with the public at length, Sergeant Major Y., the policeman, took the criticism and his dismissal from the police and chose to keep quiet – until now. The civil suit filed this past week by Pakada against the Israel Police, Y. and a third individual who was present when the incident occurred has broken the sergeant major's silence.
"He's of no interest to me, and I don't think he's acting according to his own free will," Y. says of Pakada. "In my opinion, he's been used and they're still using him. When I saw him with Bibi, I felt a sharp pang in my heart – because that's a guy who threw a punch at a policeman, who picked up a rock to throw at him. And how does it end? He gets his picture taken with the prime minister, at the prime minister's request, like he's getting a prize. I'd also like to meet with the prime minister and tell him what really happened there."
Y., 25, joined the police some two years ago, with a clean personal record and a past as a combat soldier in the IDF's Paratroopers Brigade. "I saw the police as a calling, love of the country, a desire to make a difference," he says, stressing the fact that he, too, immigrated to Israel at the age of four from the former Soviet Union.
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He remembers every detail of the emergency call he responded to on April 26 – a report about a suspicious object under a bench in Holon's Jesse Cohen neighborhood. "Jesse Cohen is an area you don't mess around in because of all the (crime-related) assassination attempts that have taken place there," he recalls. "Whoever heard the report on the police radio went straight into work mode. Just recently, a grenade was thrown a hundred meters from there."
On arriving at the scene, Y. says, he immediately blocked the road, ordered pedestrians to back away and called in reinforcements. "I remember getting a call from the report center to tell me the sappers were on the way." he recounts. "Meanwhile, civilians were coming out their homes and moving into the danger zone. I instructed my partner to use the loudspeaker to tell everyone to remain in their homes. Fortunately, everyone listened to me."
And then the Ethiopian soldier showed up.
"That's just it," Y. says, clearly annoyed. "When I see a civilian in front of me, I don't see an Ethiopian. The color of his skin, his ethnicity and how long he's been in the country are of no concern to me. I saw a civilian and all I care about is saving lives. There is discrimination against Ethiopians in Israel; those who claim so are right. But those kinds of things never enter my mind. I served together with many Ethiopians throughout my military service; they were my good friends and I never once thought that they were different. There isn't a person who knows me who would say: Yes, he's a racist."
Let's get back to the incident. What happened there?
"We positioned a patrol car about 150 meters from the bench, and it clearly formed a barrier that shouldn't be crossed. I saw him while I was walking down the street and, gesturing with my hands for him to back away, I shouted: There's a suspicious object here. But he continued to approach."
Did he say anything to you?
"Yes. 'Who the hell do you think you are? I'm walking through here because I need to get home. What do you want from me anyway?' He spoke to me in fluent Hebrew and in a very unpleasant tone. He clearly understood me. Nevertheless, I explained things to him repeatedly, but he continued to approach."
A camera mounted on one of the buildings on the street captured the ensuing confrontation.
"I was aware of the camera and I had no problem with it," Y. says. "I acted in the same way I would have acted with our without the camera there. What is clear is that the video doesn't show him walking into the cordoned off area and you don't hear me say to him: Stop. You can't go any further."
Everyone who has seen the video has seen you hitting Pakada and knocking him to the ground.
"You first see the soldier and me standing still next to the bicycle. At that stage, I again say to him: Move away; there's a suspicious object here; you're interfering with my work; you'll get yourself arrested. I saw that he didn't care, and I turned around. I thought he would leave. And then he said something else to me: 'Who do you think you are?' Or something like that.
"I said to him: Just listen to me – and I grab hold of his bicycle to move him along. I don't think another policeman would have behaved like me, so politely. You can see in the video that I move the bike back a little, so that he would move too. And he resisted and tried to move forward and release my grip on the bike. I grabbed the bike, which stood as a buffer between us, and then he hit me on the neck.
"Police procedures tell you to subdue him right away, not to give him a chance to attack you again. It's interfering with a policeman in the line of duty, endangering human life. I told him he was under arrest, tried to subdue him and then he punched me hard in the eye. Only then did I respond with a punch in the face. I don't just go up to someone and hit them for fun. And then he fell, and all I tried to do was to cuff him. I didn't kick him while he was on the ground. It's all in the clip. I don't understand how no one can see what happened."
In retrospect, what would you have done differently?
"I would have done the exact same – as simple as that. I would have acted in the same manner. Because that's what I know under the law and that's what I was taught in the police."
Aren't you worried that people will read this interview and say you are living in a fantasy world? After all, you're clearly seen attacking Pakada.
"I was there and I know exactly what went down – not the people and not the lawyers of the Ethiopian soldier. The soldier and I are the only ones who know the truth, which is exactly as I have told it. And whoever watches the clip slowly will see that I am right. I'm not living in a fantasy world; the fantasy is that people don't believe me and are judging me in keeping with the public mood. But the public mood won't change the facts."
Have you thought about apologizing and that's it?
"I won't fold and won't say I was wrong in an instance in which I was right. People can say whatever they want, but it won't get to me. I will never be ashamed of what I did."