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In Israel, anti-migrant racism flares after Eritrean clashes

Israel's 'African problem': After Eritrean clashes, anti-migrant racism flares
6 min read
20 September, 2023
In-depth: Violent clashes in Tel Aviv involving Eritrean asylum seekers, and ensuing calls to deport all migrants, have put the spotlight on Israel's widespread and long-standing police brutality and racism against African migrants.

In the wake of violent clashes during protests by rival groups of Eritreans in south Tel Aviv at the beginning of this month, the Israeli government has launched a full-scale offensive against African migrants.

The unrest erupted after opponents of the Eritrean government asked Israeli authorities to cancel an embassy event, and clashed with government supporters. The involvement of the Israeli police dramatically intensified the street fight as officers fired on protesters with live ammunition, arguably a disproportionate response.

In the aftermath of the altercations between pro- and anti-regime Eritreans, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu vowed to deport the “illegal infiltrators” involved in the skirmishes. More than 50 Eritrean protest participants were detained without charge or trial.

Just a week later, the Israeli cabinet approved $5 million to incentivise African migrants and refugees to depart, the latest of several measures the Israeli regime has taken over the years to try to kick asylum seekers out of the country. It also announced plans to strengthen the police presence in south Tel Aviv, where many migrants live.

Halefom Sultan, an Eritrean asylum-seeker and activist living in Tel Aviv, thinks police violence in the events at the Eritrean embassy “reflects” the Israeli government’s policies, observing a recurring use of excessive force on non-Jews in the country. 

“Every time there’s an incident of violence, police forces will turn against us [refugees],” he told The New Arab.

The refugee activist hinted that it is possible that Israeli officials purposefully left these politically opposed Eritrean groups to clash with each other to fuel the perception that asylum seekers are “criminals”.

“Whenever refugees get into a fight, Israeli police will just stand by until it’s all over,” Sultan said, emphasising that the non-intervention seemed deliberate.

Netanyahu called migration from African countries a “threat” to the state of Israel, hailing the construction of a barrier on the southern border with Egypt which he claimed blocked “hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of Africans”.

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The Israeli PM said there remains a “problem” in south Tel Aviv and elsewhere that needs to be resolved, and ordered a plan to remove all of the country’s African migrants, claiming that they are a threat to the “future of Israel as a Jewish and a democratic state”.

Netanyahu and others in his government have blamed the Supreme Court for previously standing in the way of forcing migrants out of Israel.

The recent crackdown on Israel’s Eritrean minority points to an escalation in the Israeli right’s anti-migrant campaign, which has long sought to target non-Jewish immigrants. Consecutive Israeli cabinets, mostly under Netanyahu’s leadership, have manifested this hostility towards African asylum seekers, the majority of whom are from Sudan and Eritrea.

Between the years of 2005 and 2012, Israel began implementing several policies to dissuade immigration as many Africans arrived in the country via Egypt, before building a fence along the desert border which largely stemmed the numbers of incoming migrants.

More than 100 people were injured when Israeli police intervened in clashes between rival Eritrean factions in southern Tel Aviv on 2 September 2023. [Getty]

“The Israeli government has initiated so many directives to make [African migrants’] life miserable in order to coerce them into leaving,” Sigal Rozen, public policy coordinator at the Israeli rights group Hotline for Refugees and Migrants (HRM), commented speaking to The New Arab.

Under international law, Israel cannot return people entitled to refugee protection to a country where their life or liberty may be at risk. But in recent years, Israeli authorities have tried various tactics against asylum-seekers to push them out.

In 2013, in response to a policy of incarcerating migrants indefinitely, Israel’s High Court overruled legislation that permitted migrants to be jailed for up to three years without trial. The detention period was later reduced to the current three-month period.

The Court also ordered the closure of Holot refugee detention centre in southern Israel’s Negev desert in 2014, which the government finally shut down in 2018.

Since 2013, Israel has encouraged asylum-seekers to leave ‘voluntarily’, often under the threat of imprisonment, by offering plane tickets, travel documents and cash payments.

Notably, it struck secret agreements with Rwanda and Uganda, where it started transferring Eritreans and Sudanese under a contentious “voluntary return” programme whereby immigrants had to choose between indefinite imprisonment in Israel and signing a document to “willingly” leave.

Those departing under this policy were not granted protection in Rwanda or Uganda, forcing them to embark on a dangerous journey in search of safety in Europe. 

In 2018, the Israeli government took a harsher step by announcing a plan to forcibly deport African asylum seekers residing in the country to third African countries, however the deportation plan was cancelled following months of both local and international outrage and mobilisation.

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Israeli authorities have also been incentivising immigrants to return home or relocate by means of economic pressure. A 2017 law required employers to deposit 20% of asylum seekers’ wages into a fund that they could only access if they agreed to leave the country. The High Court repealed the law in 2020.

Last year, the Interior Ministry decided to prohibit the employment of asylum seekers in 17 Israeli cities, where most of them live, unless they work in certain industries (hospitality, construction, agriculture, and institutional caretaking) that rely on migrant labour.

Even though it has not been enacted, the directive puts refugees and migrants in limbo not knowing if they would be ordered to relocate to a city where they are authorised to live and work.  

Another coercive governmental proposal was announced in June of this year to train asylum seekers and refugees professionally on the condition that they will leave Israel willingly. 

For years, the Israeli government has implemented a range of tactics aimed at driving African migrants in the country out. [Getty]

“The most horrible of all measures is this constant instability. Every day, asylum seekers learn that Israeli decision-makers are discussing them or making new plans to try to expel them,” Rozen told The New Arab.

She stressed that, regardless of who is in charge, the Israeli political establishment has been steadily hostile toward African immigrants. “All governments during these years have wanted to see migrants out,” she explained.

There are an estimated 25,000 African immigrants living in Israel, mainly from Sudan and Eritrea, who fled conflict or persecution. Very few have been granted refugee status, with only a minuscule 0.5% of asylum seeker claims accepted as of today.

In contrast, Israel grants automatic citizenship to Jews from anywhere in the world, without requiring any justifying circumstances.

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Those seeking asylum in Israel are only allowed to stay under a temporary permit. They are not officially allowed to work, and are not entitled to healthcare or welfare services, except in extreme cases.

Most of them reside in south Tel Aviv, characterised by a relatively lower cost of living, or economically deprived neighbourhoods of Jerusalem, Eilat, Haifa, Arad, and Ashkelon. Israeli residents in those areas complain of increased crime, a rise in rents, and lack of jobs, often blaming migrants.

Immigrants with little to no rights have already lived with an uncertain future amid ongoing efforts to push them out of the county.

Now, Israel’s right-wing government is leveraging the rise in hostility towards migrants in the aftermath of the Tel Aviv clashes to further its racist campaign against the non-Jewish migrant community.

Alessandra Bajec is a freelance journalist currently based in Tunis.

Follow her on Twitter: @AlessandraBajec