January 29, 1996 in Nation/World

Ethiopian Jews Clash With Police Over Dumping Of Donated Blood Peres Apology For Secret Policy Finally Quiets Thousands After 30 Police Hurt

Miami Herald

Police fired tear gas and swung clubs Sunday at a surging crowd of 10,000 Ethiopian Jews who stormed the prime minister’s office in anger from recent revelations that Israel rejected their donated blood.

The protest ended only after Prime Minister Shimon Peres apologized personally and on behalf of the state for the secret blood-bank rule in which all Ethiopian blood was discarded due to fears that it may contain the AIDS virus.

In the violent confrontation, an estimated 50 people were injured - about 30 of them police - including one officer who lost an eye and another officer who may be paralyzed, police said.

For Ethiopians, who number about 60,000 in Israel, the blood scandal was the latest and worst of a string of negative incidents since massive, covert airlifts in 1984 and 1991 brought thousands to Israel. Ethiopian leaders, citing discrimination in the education system and in the army, say they feel like second-class citizens in Israel.

Peres promised to form a committee with Ethiopian representatives to investigate the blood situation, said Shlomo Molla of the United Ethiopian Jewish Organization. Peres’ chief of staff also met with protest leaders about several other issues, including the disproportionately high rate of suicide among Ethiopian Jews in the army.

Absorption Minister Yair Tzaban told the crowd that he had not known that their blood was being discarded and that it wasn’t government policy. Thousands booed. Many cried out, “Liar.”

Afterward, Tzaban fretted about the long-lasting impact from the blood scandal. “To a certain extent, what we’ve invested in this policy of absorbing Ethiopians into society - and we’ve invested in every Ethiopian immigrant three to five times the average - all that was spoiled by the way that this issue was dealt with.”

Israeli media first reported the discarding of Ethiopian Israeli blood last week, and government officials rushed to defend the practice. They said Ethiopian immigrants have a higher risk of AIDS infection than other Israelis. The blood bank has not accepted blood donations from other high-risk groups, including homosexuals and intravenous drug users.

The United Ethiopian Jewish Organization has protested the blood donation policy to the Supreme Court, seeking the resignation of the health minister and the head of the Israel Blood Bank.

Health Minister Ephraim Sneh said the incidence of AIDS carriers among Ethiopians in Israel is 50 times that of the general Israeli population.

Ethiopian blood donors were never told that their blood was unlikely to be used. He justified exclusion of high-risk groups because there is a “window” of time, between several weeks and six months, during which antibodies to HIV are not always distinguishable.

“Most of the Ethiopian immigrants who give blood are soldiers who come with their buddies to donate,” Dr. Amnon Ben-David, head of the state blood bank, said last week. “We thought that singling out an ethnic group and telling them to go home would be more offensive and embarrassing.”

Ethiopians protesters saw it differently Sunday.

One demonstrator, who identified himself only as Shimon, said he went to a blood bank after the gruesome bus bomb attack in Tel Aviv in October 1994.

“I donated blood after the No. 5 bus attack in Dizengoff, and my blood was poured away,” he said. “It kills me.”

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