Tel Aviv Police Arrest Suspect in Firebombing Attack Targeting Asylum Seekers

Police forced to separate protesters from neighborhood residents when anti-racism protest following firebomb attacks gets out of hand; detention of suspected attacker extended by four days on Sunday.

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Tel Aviv police have arrested a suspect in the arson attack against multiple targets in south Tel Aviv's Shapira neighborhood last Thursday.

The suspect, 20-year-old Chaim Mola, a resident of the neighborhood, is suspected of having thrown four firebombs at apartments and a kindergarten used by the local community of African asylum seekers. On Sunday, police extended his detention by four days.

The suspect in the arson attack in south Tel Aviv last week at Friday's demonstration in the neighborhood. Credit: Daniel Bar-On

Mola was also one of a group of youths who clashed with some 200 people demonstrating in solidarity with African asylum seekers living in the area, thought to be the target of the firebomb attack, on Friday afternoon.

The demonstrators converged on Mesilat Yesharim Street in the Shapira neighborhood carrying signs with antiracism messages. They were met by dozens of area residents, some of whom tore the signs and cursed out the activists. Police officers dispatched to the scene separated the groups, who continued to shout at each other from opposite sides of the street as a few dozen African nationals watched from a distant street corner.

The Shapira neighborhood preschool after the attack early Friday morning.Credit: Daniel Bar-On

During the demonstration, Mola grabbed signs from the hands of the demonstrators, and was warned by police that he would be arrested if he did not calm down.

At one point, the two main groups broke into small clusters and spoke frankly. "We're not racists. We oppose violence, no matter who it's against," Orion Tzezana, a 30-year-old mother of two who has lived in Shapira for six years, said to a protester in her 20s who called Tzezana and her friends racists when it came to foreigners.

"It's important that everyone who came to demonstrate today, and all other Israelis, recognize that we in this neighborhood get all the waste of the State of Israel," Tzezana said. "We are neighbors of the Sudanese and the Eritreans, and we live with them all year round in harmony, but it's intolerable for one neighborhood to bear the burden of their absorption. The State of Israel decided they can come and stay here, so someone should see to it that they are distributed among everyone.

"It's intolerable for us to lend a hand to their absorption, while in the north of the city they aren't lifting even a fingernail," she added. "Today people stand here with signs accusing us, who live with them, of racism. They don't live with them. In their buildings there isn't even a single apartment with refugees. Tell me please, who's the racist here - me or them?".

"It's a one-sided demonstration," shouts Shapira resident Ovadia Sasson, 24, at the protesters. "You have to understand that these refugees sit on our streets, raping and robbing, and no one writes about that or takes to the streets over it. On Saturday, a few young people carried out an action, one we did not agree with, and immediately everyone comes to demonstrate. It's impossible to be one-sided about the issue, to come only when one side is hurt. Where is everyone when every day we are dealing with the implications of the refugees in our neighborhoods?" Sasson says.

The Tel Aviv District Police says it has not made any arrests, but is continuing to investigate the firebombings. The police did not inform the public about the latest events in Shapira. News of the Molotov cocktail firebombs came from refugee and asylum-seeker advocacy organizations.

The district police spokesman's office initially said the incident was a fire in which no one was injured and therefore was of no interest to the media. Officials later admitted to an error in assessing the incident and its significance.

Over the weekend, someone drew a red heart on the sidewalk of the alley linking Israel Misalant and Abudirham streets, presumably in solidarity with the African asylum seekers in the nearby ground-floor apartment, into which one of the Molotov cocktails was tossed late Thursday night. When the incident occurred, two asylum seekers from Eritrea were sleeping on mattresses in the yard, just meters from the site of the explosion. They rushed to put out the fire, which destroyed two upholstered chairs as well as blankets and clothing. Seven people were inside the one-room apartment at the time.

"We never imagined something this this," Gabriel Barhan, 29, an asylum seeker from Eritrea who lives in the apartment said Saturday. He came to Israel just three months ago, and picks up one or two days of casual work a week that he says barely suffices for his rent and basic necessities. "I'm afraid," Barhan said. "We don't know if it will continue. We don't know who did this, but they must hate us very much."

Tension between the long-standing Israeli residents of south Tel Aviv and the foreign refugees, asylum seekers and labor migrants now living alongside them, is not new. According to the Interior Ministry's population registry, in 2011 more than 17,000 unauthorized foreign nationals - mostly from Sudan and Eritrea - sneaked into Israel through the border with Egypt. After their identities are checked at Ketziot Detention Center, most are bused to the Tel Aviv Central Bus Station area, in the south of the city.

City officials estimate that around 40,000 labor migrants and more than 20,000 asylum seekers live in south Tel Aviv. Most live in the disadvantaged Shapira, Hatikva, Neve Sha'anan and Kiryat Shalom neighborhoods, as well as the area surrounding the bus station.

Veteran residents of these neighborhoods say the demographic changes have made their lives intolerable. They complain of physical assaults, sexual harassment, home robberies, thefts and public drug and alcohol abuse, all perpetrated by African nationals. At the same time, they say, rents in the neighborhoods have soared as landlords take advantage of the possibility of renting out small apartments to large numbers of foreign nationals. Long-standing residents have organized conferences over the issue, held demonstrations and even broke up a Tel Aviv city council meeting last year.

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