Eritrean riots in Tel Aviv expose how Israel is failing asylum seekers 

Eritrean riots in Tel Aviv highlight asylum-seeker policy

More than 150 people were injured in unprecedented violence between supporters and opponents of the Eritrean government on Saturday.

Tel Aviv saw unprecedented, chaotic violence between rival groups of Eritrean migrants, in a fight split along lines of supporters and opponents of the country’s autocratic regime.

Eritreans make up the majority of the some 30,000 African asylum-seekers in Israel today, likely numbering around 17,000.

Most of them say they fled danger and persecution from a country known as the “North Korea of Africa” with forced lifetime military conscription in slavery-like conditions.

But the government in Asmara does have some supporters in Israel. The chaos on Saturday broke out over an official Eritrean government event for its supporters in Tel Aviv, marking the 30th anniversary of the current ruler’s rise to power.

Opponents of the regime, decked in blue, arrived on the scene to demonstrate against supporters, who wore red. The rallies soon devolved into intense violence, with over 150 injured, 15 were in a serious condition and at least 40 were hospitalised. Some 30 police officers were hurt. The chaos lasted for several hours.

Eritrean refugees say they warned police in Israel that there would be violence at the event but were not taken seriously.

Police Commissioner Kobi Shabtai seized control from the city’s district police chief on Saturday.

“We felt as if we were on the eve of a war, poring over the maps,” one police officer said. “Shabtai began giving orders directly to the commanders in the field … and took control of the mess taking place there.”

The response

Police arrested 52 people, most of them suspected of minor infractions such as disturbing public order. However, with the backing of the Interior Ministry and State Prosecutor, National Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir asked that most of them be held in custody under the terms of the amended Law to Prevent Infiltration.

Most of the asylum-seekers arrested will be subject to administrative detention, without trial.

According to one source, the far-right Ben-Gvir also agreed to advance a Basic Law on Immigration, which seeks to impose much harsher measures on asylum-seekers.

In a statement,  Ben-Gvir confirmed that the Immigration Authority and the prosecution “agreed to my request that most of the detained infiltrators in Tel Aviv last night continue on the administrative track and be detained with a low threshold of evidence.”

Political leaders responded to the riots through their own lenses. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu backed widespred arrests and said he would consider deportating those involved in the riots. Opposition head Yair Lapid said the riots were a sign of the government’s failure to handle the immigration crisis.  National Unity leader MK Benny Gantz referenced the “overall damage to governance under the current government”. Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich  blamed the High Court for preventing the expulsion of asylum-seekers.

The context

Asylum-seekers have been met with antipathy by successive Israeli governments, and face an uncertain future as the state has acknowledged refugee status only in a minuscule number of cases and has led ongoing efforts to make life difficult for them or to deport them outright.

The migrants’ presence has long divided the country. Their supporters say Israel, a country founded upon the ashes of the Holocaust and built up by Jewish refugees, should welcome those seeking asylum.

Opponents claim the refugees are economic migrants who have brought crime to the low-income southern Tel Aviv neighbourhoods where they have settled.

The issue is oft-cited by supporters of the government’s judicial overhaul as an example of court overreach in defiance of public will, while opponents of the overhaul cite the same decisions as proving the court’s key role in protecting human rights.

Anti-government protesters have long complained about the Eritrean embassy’s attempts to monitor and track refugees.

Last week, the Swiss newspaper St. Galler Tagblatt reported that the Eritrean embassy had been sending spies disguised as refugees to extort money from refugees.

The paper reported on multiple stories of people who had fled the country being tracked down and threatened to pay back “debts” or “taxes” they owed back home.

Ongoing disputes with the Israeli government over refugee and asylum status have also been cited by protesters as part of the rationale for the riots.


Eritreans in Israel: Long neglected, divided amongst themselves and dividing society

Eritrean Refugees in Israel Warned Anti-regime Protest Would Be Violent. They Were Right.

Why are Eritreans rioting against their regime in Israel?

Netanyahu threatens deportation after Eritrean regime supporters, refugees clash in Israel

Smotrich: High Court is ‘solely responsible’ for Eritrean riot in Tel Aviv

Israel’s Police Chief Forced to Take Control During Asylum Seekers’ Clashes in Tel Aviv

Israeli Gov’t Plans to Hold Asylum Seekers Arrested in Riots Without Trial, Sources Say

‘A real threat’: PM backs widespread arrests, eyes deportations in migrant crackdown
After riots, cabinet members okay administrative detentions, weigh pulling work permits; Netanyahu says they’ll also strive “to get all the rest of the illegal infiltrators out”.

Should we, Eritrean asylum seekers, just keep fleeing?

Photo: Anti-Eritrean government activists in blue, left,  clash with supporters of the Eritrean government, in maroon, in Tel Aviv on Saturday (AP Photo/Ohad Zwigenberg