Violent riots in Tel Aviv fan Israel's bitter immigration dispute

 Violent riots against immigration from Africa shook Tel Aviv on Wednesday night, prompting a counter-protest on Thursday, but also leading government officials to call for the immediate deportation of Israel’s tens of thousands of illegal African immigrants.


Screen grab of mob from video below.


Violent riots in Tel Aviv against immigration from Africa have prompted counter-protests, but have also led government officials to call for the immediate deportation of Israel’s tens of thousands of African illegal immigrants.


The neighbourhood of Hatikva, in southern Tel Aviv where many African immigrants live, was ransacked Wednesday night following a large rally by nationalist protesters. Africans in the neighbourhood were insulted, spat on, and beaten; shops owned by Africans were looted.


Video of crowd walking through streets following an anti-immigration rally Wednesday night in Tel Aviv.


Following this violence, Israel’s right-wing prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu issued a statement condemning the attacks, while promising to resolve “the problem of infiltrators” by sending them back to their home countries in a process that would begin “soon.” Three days earlier, he had warned that the “60,000 infiltrators [the number of illegal African immigrants currently living in Israel] are liable to become 600,000 and lead to the eradication of Israel as a Jewish and democratic state.”


Interior Minister Eli Yishai, meanwhile, warned that Israel was witnessing the “crumbling of the Zionist dream.” He advocates jailing all African immigrants pending deportation.


Police estimate that African immigrants are currently arriving at the rate of 700 per week. Most come from Sudan and Eritrea through the border with Egypt. Israel is now constructing a 200 kilometre-long barrier along the border in an attempt to keep more from coming.


Since Sudan is considered by Israel to be an "enemy state", and Eritrea has a dismal human rights record, Israel has not, as of yet, sent immigrants from these countries home. Instead, Israel lets them stay, but does not process most of their asylum applications, meaning they are not legally allowed to work or gain access to public health care. Last year, out of 4,603 new asylum applications, Israel rejected 3,692 and approved only one.


Two weeks ago, Tel Aviv’s mayor, Ron Huldai, had called on the government to “take responsibility for dealing with [illegal immigrants]” following firebomb attacks on buildings housing Africans in southern Tel Aviv. He warned: “It is impossible to ignore their needs as human beings and to expect they won’t turn to crime.”


A counter-rally denouncing the attacks was held Thursday in Tel Aviv. 

“Protesters started screaming at Africans who were just walking down the street, minding their own business”

David Sheen, a writer and filmmaker who lives in Tel Aviv, is the author of a documentary on racism against African immigrants in Israel. He has filmed numerous anti-immigrant protests, including those in southern Tel Aviv on Tuesday and Wednesday. He filmed a video of protesters cursing at an Israeli woman who defended African immigrants, which you can see here (Warning: video includes very graphic language).


Anti-immigrant rallies are usually held in southern Tel Aviv, because that’s where most African immigrants live, near the central bus station where they first set foot in the city. On Tuesday, supporters of a far-right group, including a member of parliament, marched to the office of an organization that provides support to immigrants, which had closed early to avoid trouble.


There, people spoke with megaphones, calling for the deportation of all illegal African immigrants. They were whipped up into a frenzy. Some protesters started screaming at Africans who were just walking down the street, minding their own business. About a dozen African people gathered to watch from a distance, along with more liberal Israelis. But the protesters hurled insults and threats at them, so they left.


“Many people in Israel worry that Jewish people will one day become a minority of the population, and that they will once again become subject to persecution”


The next day was even worse. This time, hundreds of people gathered for a big anti-immigrant rally on the side of a highway, again in southern Tel Aviv. Since it wasn’t in the middle of the streets this time, so there weren’t many Africans around – in any case, most of them knew to stay indoors. Some anti-racist Israelis showed up, too – they were cursed, pushed around, and had their signs torn up. The same went for journalists or people filming the demonstration – I was shoved and hit by protesters. I left before it turned into a ‘pogrom’ [several media outlets, including the army’s radio, likened the riots to a pogrom].


Anti-immigrant anger is escalating in Israel, even in Tel Aviv, the country’s supposed “liberal” bastion. The problem is that we don’t have a regular immigrant population who can contribute to the economy and integrate – the government forbids these immigrants from working. Of course, they don’t have enough money, so some steal, and many become homeless.


Many people nevertheless worry that these immigrants will steal their jobs. And many people in Israel worry that Jewish people will one day become a minority of the population, and that they once again become subject to persecution. This is paranoid, in my opinion; African immigrants represent less than 1 percent of our population. But for some, there shouldn’t be any non-Jewish people in the country at all.


Orthodox leaders have fanned this belief in 2010 by issuing edicts saying that Jewish people should not rent property to non-Jewish people. These are rabbis paid by the state! And many politicians are also fanning the flames by treating African immigrants as sub-human [most politicians refer to these immigrants as “infiltrators”; one member of parliament recently called them "the cancer of society.”]

Post written with FRANCE 24 journalist Gaelle Faure.