The tragic case of the Eritrean mistaken for a terrorist in Israel

Victim blurred by France 24. Photo courtesy of Israel News Flash.
Victim blurred by France 24. Photo courtesy of Israel News Flash.

Hafton Zarhum, 29, had come to Israel from Eritrea, seeking asylum. But on Sunday, as he was returning from renewing his visa, he ended up being mistaken for a terrorist and killed. A security guard at the Beersheba bus terminal apparently mistook him for a gunman after shots rang out inside the station. Zarhum was shot in the lower body, and fell to the ground. Though he was writhing in a pool of blood, only half-conscious and defenceless, this did not stop an angry mob from attacking him.


A first video of the incident, filmed by surveillance cameras, shows several people running through the station, apparently fleeing the shooter. Zarhum is one of them. He stumbles and is trying to scramble away on all fours when a security guard coming from the other direction shoots him, and he crumples to the floor. When another guard arrives, gun drawn, Zarhum puts his hands up above his head.

In several other videos filmed by bystanders, Zarhum can be seen lying in a pool of blood, barely moving. He is surrounded by many people, in what seems to be an atmosphere of utter confusion. In this video, some men try to protect him, but several others attack him. One throws a row of chairs on him, and a soldier kicks him, hard. Another soldier can be seen removing the chairs from on top of him.

Victim blurred by France 24.

In another video, a man is seen spitting on him.

Several Israeli media outlets reported that paramedics had difficulty getting Zarhum into an ambulance, because the mob tried to block their way. He later died at a hospital.

The shooter, meanwhile, killed a 19-year-old soldier and injured 11 more people before being shot dead outside the station. He was identified as a 19-year-old Palestinian Bedouin with Israeli citizenship who lived in a nearby village.

According to the authorities, he somehow managed to get past the station’s tight security with a gun. He then shot the soldier, took his rifle, and continued to shoot at other people in the station.

This attack is the latest in a series that started over two weeks ago, setting the entire country on edge. In total, eight Israelis have been killed in Palestinian attacks – most of them with knives – and 19 suspected terrorists have been shot dead.

“The atmosphere in our country has allowed people to take the law into their own hands”

Moran Mekamel, a recent university graduate and an advocate for asylum seekers, was in the station at the time of the attack.

When I arrived at the Beersheba bus station, I ran into some Bedouin friends. We were nervously joking about how people might look at us strangely, an Israeli talking to Bedouins, in a time where tensions are running so high. I said goodbye, and headed inside. That’s when the shooting started. I ducked into a store, and hid there with the storekeeper and a couple and their daughter. After the shooting subsided, we walked out, but it started again, so we ducked back in. This happened three times!

When I finally ran out of the station, I only glanced around me. I saw pools of blood, but quickly averted my eyes. Everybody was yelling, confused, sirens blaring. Outside, there were so many people – some of them looking for relatives, others just curious.

‘We’re sorry you experienced Darfur in Israel!’

It was only later, when I got home, that I learned about the Eritrean man. Israeli media first talked about two terrorists; then, it was a terrorist and a suspected accomplice; and later in the night, it was finally revealed that he had nothing to do with the terrorist at all.

I have read about what people did to him, but I can’t bring myself to watch the videos of him getting attacked. I’ve had calls nonstop from my friends in the Eritrean and Sudanese community. They all say they are so worried for me; the Sudanese say, ‘We’re sorry you experienced Darfur in Israel!' So far, nobody knows much about who this man was.

I feel so bad that I was hiding when I could have perhaps helped him. It doesn’t make sense to me that people would attack this man while he’s on the ground, unarmed, not in any way a menace. On the one hand I want to say it’s inhuman. But it’s dangerous to say that. The atmosphere in our country has allowed people to take the law into their own hands, like it’s the Wild West.

Thankfully, the authorities are launching an investigation. [Editor’s Note: Police said they would proceed 'with caution', as they did not want to deter citizens from acting during terrorist attacks.] But it’s scary to see so many people online saying ‘you cannot judge people at a time like this’, or ‘better take risks than risk our lives’. People don’t seem to understand that today it’s him, but tomorrow it could be you."

Approximately 42,000 Sudanese and Eritrean asylum seekers currently live in Israel. The majority arrived illegally through the border with Egypt. They are given group protection, meaning they can’t be deported back to their countries, but they are not officially permitted to work and have recently been pressured to leave for other countries or face detention. Hundreds are currently detained at a camp in the Negev desert. On Monday, the detainees held a memorial for Zarhum.

The memorial for Zarhum in the yard of the Holot detention facility.