Israeli media and authorities say that Eritrean asylum seeker Habtom Zarhum died because he was mistaken for a Palestinian terrorist. His friends and fellow refugees don’t believe it: He was killed by racism, they say, fearing they could face the same fate at any moment.
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“I have lived in Israel for seven years,” said Awet Asheber, a 35-year-old Sudanese. “I have never been mistaken for an Arab. We don’t look the same. Look at my skin color – it’s the same color as Habtom’s. We look African – not Arab!”
Zarhum, 29, was attacked and beaten on Sunday as he lay in a pool of blood on the floor of the Be’er Sheva Central Bus Station after being shot by a security guard who suspected he had carried out the terror attack that just took place there. While some tried to protect him, the mob repeatedly charged at him, kicking him in the head and throwing a bench at him.
Asheber, who was recently released from the Holot detention facility for asylum seekers, believes that the “lynch,” as the attack is referred to in Hebrew, merely provided the incensed crowd with an opportunity to vent their racism against Africans. “They beat him as if he were a snake. Israeli society has called us a cancer,” he said, referring to 2012 comments by then-MK and current Culture Minister Miri Regev. “They call us infiltrators and don’t realize that we are here because we have nowhere else to go. It was racism that killed Habtom, and it can kill any one of us,” Asheber said.
On Wednesday night, thousands of Africans, along with dozens of Israelis, crowded into Levinsky Park in south Tel Aviv for a memorial service for Zarhum. The event was organized by lay leaders in the Eritrean community, along with some logistical aid from Israeli NGO’s including the Hotline for Refugees and Migrants. Religious officials representing the Orthodox, Roman Catholic and Pentecostal denominations offered condolence prayers and encouraged the assembled to observe their faith. Most spoke in Tigrinya, one of Eritrea’s official languages. The crowd listened quietly, but the undercurrent of rage was palpable. Next to an unused bomb shelter that served as a stage, the organizers had hung a large sign, reading “The Barbaric Act of Beheading an Innocent Eritrean,” along with a picture of Zarhum, Israeli and Eritrean flags, and a cross.
One Roman Catholic priest addressed the audience in Hebrew. “I speak to the Israelis here, who have come to express their sorrow with us that Habtom, an asylum seeker, was caught in this situation of such hatred ... we have come together, so many Africans and Israelis, to beseech the heavens: Enough! Enough! Enough suffering for the people of Israel. Enough suffering for the people of Palestine. Enough suffering for the people of Africa May we learn from Habtom to open our eyes and our hearts, and learn to love.”
Earlier on Wednesday, the police announced that they had arrested four men on suspicion of participating in the attack on Zarhum, which was caught on security cameras. The Abu Kabir Institute of Forensic Medicine released its findings from the autopsy performed on Zarhum, which show that he died of the gunshot wounds and not from the beating by the mob. This means that the alleged perpetrators cannot be charged with murder but rather only with lesser charges such as manslaughter.
“Israelis have a license for racism,” accused Johnny Goyton, one of the organizers of the event. “I am afraid – of a terrorist attack, but also of the Jews who hate me because I’m a black African.”
A woman who identified herself as Ruta added, “It’s so heartbreaking. The racism of the people and the way the government treats us. He was in Be’er Sheva because of that stupid piece of paper that the government uses to make our lives miserable.”
Ruta was referring, explained, to the fact that the Africans, who currently number some 45,000 in Israel, most of them from Eritrea and Sudan, must renew their visas every two months. Officially, these visas state that they are not allowed to work, but the police and immigration authorities do not enforce the prohibition. Without the visa, however, they can be imprisoned. “So the visa that says that they are prohibited from working is actually the license for them to work. Instead of allowing people like Habtom to work legally, the government commits a crime in its own name,” said Asaf Weitzen, Legal Director of the Hotline for Refugees and Migrants.
Furthermore, because he entered the country illegally, Zarhum will not be recognized as a victim of hostilities under the law and therefore neither he nor his relatives will be eligible for benefits from the state, although a special committee is considering whether to pay some compensation.
At the ceremony, little was said about Zarhum himself, who, according to an Israeli friend, had been living in Israel for nearly four years, having fled Eritrea after being forced into extended military service. The friend, who asked not to be identified, told Haaretz that he had worked with Zarhum in the garden center at Moshav Ein Habesor in the northwestern Negev, near the Gaza Strip. He described him as “a wonderful young man, full of fun and life. He was one of the funniest people I ever knew. He was always smiling and laughing.”
A man who identified himself only as Demoz complained that no Israeli government officials attended the ceremony. “You call us infiltrators and other racist words. A man who came to Israel was brutally murdered because of that racism, and not one politician from the government even comes to express their sympathy.”
MK Michal Rozin (Meretz) and newly elected Meretz Secretary General Mossi Raz were present, but stood quietly with the other mourners.
Nor was there any official representation from Eritrea. The Eritrean embassy condemned the murder, and stated that it would aid in sending Zarhum’s body back to Eritrea for burial.
Goyton noted that “we would never invite the embassy here. We are all here because we fled our country, and it pains us that the government of Israel maintains diplomatic relationships with Eritrea, which is a vicious dictatorship.”
“Habtom died because of racism," he concluded. "He died in a terrible way because Israelis are racist against Africans. Will this never end? Will there never be compassion?”