By Rami Amichay
TEL AVIV (Reuters) - Police on horseback charged hundreds of ethnic Ethiopian citizens in central Tel Aviv on Sunday as an anti-racism protest descended into one of the most violent demonstrations in Israel's commercial capital in years.
The protesters, Israeli Jews of Ethiopian origin, were demonstrating against what they say is police brutality after the emergence last week of a video clip that showed policemen shoving and punching a black soldier.
Demonstrators overturned a police car and threw bottles and stones at officers in riot gear at Rabin Square in the heart of the city.
At least 20 officers and a similar number of protesters were injured, some of whom required hospital treatment, police and an ambulance service official said. A number of arrests were made.
Police used water canon and stun grenades to try to clear the crowds. Israeli television stations said teargas was also used, something the police declined to confirm.
"I've had enough of this behavior by the police, I just don't trust them any more ... when I see the police I spit on the ground," one female demonstrator who was not identified told Channel 2 before the mounted police charge.
"Our parents were humiliated for years. We are not prepared to wait any longer to be recognized as equal citizens. It may take a few months, but it will happen," another demonstrator told Channel 10.
RACISM AND POVERTY
Tens of thousands of Ethiopian Jews were airlifted to Israel in dramatic, top-secret operations in the 1980s and 1990s after a rabbinical ruling that they were direct descendants of the biblical Jewish Dan tribe.
The community, which now numbers around 135,500 out of Israel's population of over 8 million, has long complained of discrimination, racism and poverty.
Tensions rose after an incident a week ago in a Tel Aviv suburb where a closed circuit video camera captured a scuffle between a policeman and a uniformed soldier of Ethiopian descent.
Two policemen were suspended on suspicion of using excessive force. Israeli politicians, stung by community leaders' comparison of the incident to police violence against blacks in the United States, have tried to defuse tensions.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called for calm. Taking time out from the final days of negotiations to form a coalition government, he said he would meet Ethiopian activists and the soldier on Monday.
"All claims will be looked into but there is no place for violence and such disturbances," he said in a statement.
Many demonstrators moved away from Rabin Square where most of the clashes took place but smaller pockets of protests continued into the night. Earlier, protesters halted rush hour traffic for over an hour by blocking a major Tel Aviv highway.
Some protest organizers told Israeli media that sections of the crowd had been incited to violence despite their peaceful intentions.
At a protest on Thursday in Jerusalem, police used water cannon to keep angry crowds away from Netanyahu's residence, and at least 13 people were injured.
Ethiopian Jews have joined the ranks of legislators and the officer corps in the country's melting pot military but official figures show they lag behind other Israelis.
Ethiopian households earn 35 percent less than the national average and only half of their youth receive high school diplomas, compared with 63 percent for the rest of the population.
(Writing by Jeffrey Heller and Ori Lewis; Editing by Robin Pomeroy)