Three Eritrean asylum seekers accused of killing a supporter of that country’s regime were charged with murder on Tuesday. The three allegedly stabbed Kiros Tsfamichael Brigber, another asylum seeker from Eritrea, to death in early December, after identifying him as a regime supporter.
A fourth asylum seeker was charged with assault in connection with the case.
If the allegations are true, this was the first time a violent confrontation in Israel between supporters and opponents of Eritrea’s government ended in a fatality.
The incident, which took place in the Tel Aviv’s Hatikva neighborhood, was one of several confrontations between pro- and anti-regime Eritreans in the city in recent weeks, which saw the use of stones, knives, and other weapons. According to the indictment, Brigber was beaten with metal rods and stabbed repeatedly. He died a few days later in hospital. The indictment also said that in an earlier attack, one of the accused had said: “You are talking with people against the regime and this is just the beginning,” before stabbing and kicking the victim.
Last month, prominent members of the asylum seeker community appealed to Tzachi Sharabi, the head of the Yiftah police sub-district in Tel Aviv, in the wake of several violent incidents. They wrote that “the violent actions of regime supporters are premeditated and are meant to target specific people. They are causing great anxiety among people considered to be opponents of the regime and among residents of southern Tel Aviv.” After meeting Sharabi, one community leader told Haaretz he had warned police that there would end up being a murder and urged them to take action. “People think the police are doing nothing, so they act on their own”, he said.
The UN Refugee Convention determines that a refugee is someone facing a credible threat of persecution based on race, religion, nationality or political views. While supporters of the Eritrean regime would perhaps not be politically persecuted there, Israel has not differentiated between asylum seekers based on their political affiliation.
Last year, Galia Tzabar, the president of the Ruppin Academic Center and a researcher of issues related to migrants and refugees, told Haaretz that in her opinion “the hard core of regime supporters should be returned to Eritrea, after closely examining their requests for asylum. But this is not being done, because then the complex truth would emerge, showing that some [asylum seekers] are refugees while some aren’t, and the state doesn’t want to acknowledge that.”
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Police sources expressed frustration that, given the closure of the detention facilities for asylum seekers in Holot and Saharonim in 2018, law enforcement cannot use administrative detention as a means of enforcement. According to these sources, the fact that they have to release suspects and build cases against them while they are free leads to a lack of trust in police on the part of asylum seekers. Some in the police also pin part of the difficulties they have in solving cases on a lack of cooperation from asylum seekers, adding that police forces in south Tel Aviv have been reinforced in recent weeks.
Members of the asylum seeker community say that Brigber did not seem to be known for his political beliefs and that his death may have been the result of misidentification. They noted that in contrast to brawls that occurred in broad daylight in Neve Sha'anan in March 2018 and May 2019, the latest incidents involved nighttime ambushes. Hatikva is thought to have a high concentration of regime supporters, whereas the Levinsky Park area, to its west, is known as an area for regime opponents. Each side has two churches in their respective areas – a reminder of the Eritrean Orthodox Church’s involvement in the country’s political crisis. Some attacks have occurred close to these churches, including assaults against religious figures.
“I no longer wander the streets like I used to, I’m afraid to,” says Thomas, an asylum seeker who opposes the regime, in conversation with Haaretz. “We tried to see how we could take all the violent people to court or to the police, but it didn’t interest anyone. Someone is stabbed and then he’s released after 24 hours. Then, people with anger in their hearts drink beer and retaliate. It’s very sad.”
Another asylum seeker who wished to remain anonymous out of fear for his safety said that this violence has been going on for several years. “It won’t end after someone dies; maybe it’ll calm down a little,” he said. “We’re in Israel, the strongest country in the Middle East. Can’t it investigate what is happening here? Can’t it check who’s a refugee and who’s a regime supporter, and who is funding the people carrying out these attacks?”