In Tel Aviv, a Battle Is Being Waged for the Future of Eritrea

Violent clashes between asylum seekers reflect the wide rift between dissidents and supporters of the regime. Either way, Israel could do a lot more, critics say

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Police officers and asylum seekers in south Tel Aviv.
Police officers and asylum seekers in south Tel Aviv.Credit: Tomer Appelbaum
Lee Yaron
Lee Yaron
Lee Yaron
Lee Yaron

Afternoon is generally a busy time on the pedestrian mall in Tel Aviv’s Neveh Sha’anan neighborhood. But on Wednesday, after days of violent clashes between supporters and opponents of the Eritrean government, many of the stores were closed. The few that were open pointed to the damage caused by the previous days’ events.

“We’re afraid, and so are the customers,” said B., an asylum seeker who opposes the regime in Eritrea and owns a shop on the mall. “I opened the store at 3 P.M., and I’ll probably close it soon. There’s no work.”

Ahmed Amaru’s telephone store was damaged by the bricks the Eritreans threw at each other. “I’ve been here four years and it’s been quiet, no problems, except this week,” he said. “Yesterday afternoon we closed the store. The violence is really hurting our livelihood.”

Wednesday morning a brawl broke out on nearby Yesod Hama’aleh Street that ended with a regime supporter stabbing a regime opponent. A day earlier, four people were wounded in a brawl, and one is still hospitalized in serious condition after being hit in the head with a heavy object.

Eleven of the brawlers were arrested, and eight were sent to Saharonim Prison without trial after the immigration police held hearings for them. Police patrolled the relatively empty streets in an effort to prevent further clashes.

Right-wing protest in south Tel Aviv. Paz to Netanyahu: 'Force that scoundrel [Afwerki] to take back his insufferable subjects.'Credit: Ofer Vaknin

The recent clashes, which erupted not long after Eritrea celebrated its 25th Independence Day, stem from an ongoing dispute rooted in the asylum seekers’ country of origin. Previous independence days have also led to mass brawls.

Though people who favor deporting the asylum seekers presented footage of the clashes as proof that the Eritreans constitute a danger, deportation opponents object to blaming isolated incidents of violence on tens of thousands of people who fled a dictatorial regime.

“This violence develops in the fertile ground of the neglect of south Tel Aviv’s streets, with no connection to anyone’s origin,” said Shula Keshet, a social activist from south Tel Aviv. “The government neglects both south Tel Aviv and the asylum seekers.”

Shula Keshet.Credit: Moti Milrod

Meanwhile, the rift within the Eritrean community has grown so wide that regime opponents are demanding that anyone seen near the Eritrean ambassador or who attended an Eritrean Independence Day party be deported from Israel.

Ever since Eritrea obtained independence from Ethiopia a quarter-century ago, it has been ruled by a military junta headed by Isaias Afwerki. Its citizens must do long military service under slave-labor conditions, and the United Nations has found evidence of arbitrary arrests, imprisonment, torture, persecution, rape and murder by government agencies. Regime opponents have fled to many countries, including Israel, and requested asylum there.

But this week’s clashes were a reminder that among the 26,801 Eritreans living in Israel today, some support the Afwerki regime. According to police estimates, around 10 percent of them do. If so, what are they doing here, and what prevents Israel from deporting them?

The UN Refugee Convention states that a refugee is someone with a well-founded fear of persecution on the basis of race, religion, nationality or political opinions. At first glance, regime supporters don’t seem to fit this definition. But actually the picture is more complicated.

First, the Population, Immigration and Border Authority doesn’t distinguish between the two groups. It has systematically refused to examine Eritreans’ individual asylum requests, recognizing only 10 Eritreans as refugees to date. Both the state comptroller and the courts have repeatedly criticized the Population Authority for this.

Prof. Galia Sabar.Credit: Eyal Toueg

“In my view, it would be possible to deport the hard core of regime supporters to Eritrea, just as we deport labor migrants without visas, if the asylum requests were examined as they should be,” said Prof. Galia Sabar, president of the Ruppin Academic Center and an expert in migration and refugeehood. “But they don’t do this, because then the complex truth would emerge – that some are refugees and some aren’t. And the state doesn’t want to acknowledge this.”

Moreover, it’s no easy matter to distinguish between regime supporters and opponents. “The Eritrean Independence Day celebrations are attended by thousands, but not all of them are supporters of the government,” Sabar added. “They love their homeland but not the regime.”

Support can also come out of necessity due to threats by the Eritrean authorities and the migrants’ lack of official status in Israel. Thus, for example, some asylum seekers accede to the regime’s demands to transfer a monthly “tax” of 2 percent of their wages to protect their families left behind. Some hope that maintaining ties with the embassy in Tel Aviv will protect them from being arrested and tortured if they’re deported back home.

The Dutch experience

Occasionally, Eritrean asylum seekers have to apply for an Eritrean passport since some banks, against the regulations, demand this as a condition for opening a bank account, or because they hope to reunite with family members in other countries. But supporting the regime doesn’t guarantee freedom from persecution.

Sabar says the regime actually encourages its supporters to leave. One reason is the assumption that they’ll earn more overseas and send money home, as she says a former Eritrean ambassador to Israel admitted to her. But not just that.

“These regime supporters are representatives or a long arm of the government in Eritrean communities overseas,” Sabar said. “They warn people that their families will be harmed unless they send ‘taxes’ – they’re a means of intimidation. We see this in other countries such as Holland and Germany.”

A video of violent clashes between asylum seekers.

This year the Dutch expelled Eritrean diplomats after it turned out they were extorting refugees and intimidating opposition activists.

Many asylum seekers in Israel say a key player in stoking the unrest is the chief envoy at the Tel Aviv embassy, who took up his post a few weeks ago.

“The embassy is the formal representative of the Eritrean regime and the ambassador is the one collecting taxes from his subjects,” said Rami Gudovitz, an activist who helps children of asylum seekers who were deported from Israel. “We know that in the past the embassy encouraged regime supporters to threaten and inform on people, keeping the entire Eritrean community terrorized.”

Sources told Haaretz that the embassy initiated a meeting with the police regarding the clashes and undertook to appeal to the community to calm things down. The Eritrean Embassy declined to comment on the issue.

Benjamin Mengistab, a 23-year-old who has lived in Israel for seven years, works in a café in north Tel Aviv. A few days ago, while spirits were still roiling in the south of the city, he noticed the head of the embassy at the café. He took a picture of him and gave him a piece of his mind.

“We see in the ambassador someone who is stoking the trouble,” Mengistab said. “We fled a dictatorship, we’re scattered around the world suffering, and he doesn’t care. He’s part of the dictatorship, so I couldn’t finish my shift without approaching him.”

Leaders of the asylum-seeker community remained in their south Tel Aviv offices this week, realizing they were now targets. One of them is Thomas Johannes, 30, who has been in Israel for eight years.

“These days everyone’s at home. You can’t walk around outdoors since the street is full of regime supporters. We talk to the police, to Israelis – we want to explain the situation to everyone so that they won’t let regime supporters achieve their goal,” he said.

“They foment violence and chaos in the streets to tarnish all asylum seekers so that we’ll live in fear and Israelis will want to deport us. We know the embassy is urging regime supporters to harm us and cause unrest. You have to realize that this is a small group and that we’re asking Israel to send them away,” he added.

“We said ‘enough to violence and dictatorship’ in our own country and we fled in order to live. I requested asylum four years ago and haven’t received an answer yet. I want the state to decide who is and who isn’t a refugee, and let those who are truly under threat live a normal life here.”

Another prominent activist, Emmanuel Yamna, said that “the Eritrean regime is worried that asylum seekers in Israel are criticizing it and reporting its misdeeds and human rights violations there .... We’ve met with the police and given them the names of the organizers. These brawls are preplanned in order to intimidate us and tarnish us in the eyes of Israelis.”

Sources told Haaretz that representatives of the community appealed to the Interior Ministry years ago, offering to provide names of regime supporters so that Israel could deport them. It doesn’t appear that anything has been done.

“This issue is not our business,” the Population Authority said, and Interior Minister Arye Dery did not answer why he hasn’t launched an investigation into the issue.

‘You don’t have to get rid of everyone’

“They brought the asylum seekers here by bus and left them here,” said a 72-year-old Israeli who only gave his first name, David. He has lived in Neveh Sha’anan all his life.

“Yesterday I went to buy some food at the corner store and they were hitting each other until a lot of police arrived,” he said. “I hear all the noise from my house – the police aren’t preventing the violence. We have to scatter them around the country or deport them. They can’t stay here.”

Another resident who witnessed one of the brawls said: “I was putting on my tefillin in the morning and I saw them striking each other. I ran down to separate them. I know some Eritreans in the neighborhood who are better than any Israeli. The police and government have to kick out the troublemakers and that’s it. You don’t have to get rid of everyone, we live quite well together.”

Against the backdrop of the violent clashes there were demonstrations this week in Tel Aviv, some supporting and some opposing the deportation of asylum seekers. The leader of the pro-deportation camp, Sheffi Paz, wrote the prime minister, urging him to “force that scoundrel [Afwerki] to take back his insufferable subjects to the last one – men, women and children, supporters and opponents.”

Shlomo Maslawi, the head of the Hatikva neighborhood council and a member of the Tel Aviv City Council, added: “The government in its incompetence and indecisiveness has made the situation in south Tel Aviv intolerable and turned residents’ lives into hell. The eruptions of violence are further proof that the infiltrators feel very secure here and know that we’ll never deport them or punish them for their actions.”

According to him, “The government must deal with this immediately, overcoming the hurdle that’s the High Court of Justice and achieving the removal of these infiltrators from south Tel Aviv one way or another. The residents of south Tel Aviv are weary and frightened, asking for quiet and security once and for all.”

But, Keshet, the social activist from south Tel Aviv who opposes deportation, said “south Tel Aviv doesn’t interest anyone – it’s the country’s backyard. The neglect and drugs have been here for decades and didn’t arrive with the asylum seekers. The violence of the regime supporters is a result of this neglect.”

As she put it, “If the government examined asylum requests, it could leave here those deserving asylum and deport those who shouldn’t be here. But they’re abandoning the area in the hope that we’ll despair and abandon the asylum seekers and the veteran Mizrahi families who live here so that the municipality can give it all to tycoons. Instead of inciting and blaming people, the government should finally invest in south Tel Aviv.”

It seems that all sides agree on one thing: the government’s neglect of the asylum-seeker issue and the urgent need to rehabilitate south Tel Aviv neighborhoods.

“If this violence happened a bit to the north of here, such as on Rothschild Boulevard, we’d hear Mayor [Ron] Huldai talk about it on every platform and the municipality would act to stop it,” said Dror Mizrahi, a resident of Neveh Sha’anan and a Meretz candidate for city council.

“Since it’s happening in south Tel Aviv, the mayor has kept silent. There are asylum seekers here from all over the world, with crime and neglect, but the government finds it easy to depict the situation such that if all the black people were deported there would be no violence,” he added.

“We’re waging a titanic battle here over rehabilitation of these neighborhoods, and it’s time city hall and the government stopped inciting and decided to invest in rehabilitation for the benefit of all south Tel Aviv residents.”

For its part, the Tel Aviv municipality said that “in contrast to what has been said, the mayor has been working with the police to immediately restore a sense of personal security and public order. This has been brought to the attention of the media. Moreover, the mayor posted something on his Facebook page.”

The city quoted the following post: “The disturbances in Neveh Sha’anan are not something we can accept. I’ve talked to Maj. Gen. David Bitan, the commander of the Tel Aviv police, who promised to immediately restore security and public order. I’m personally following the situation and will continue to do so, and we’ll do everything to reestablish a sense of security for the area’s residents.”

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