Tens of thousands of African asylum-seekers marched through central Tel Aviv to Rabin Square on Sunday, where they held a demonstration demanding Israel recognize their asylum requests and cease jailing them in detention facilities in the South.
It was the largest demonstration ever held by the African migrant community in Israel, and the first act in a three-day national strike that it declared on Sunday.
The protest follows two straight weeks in which African migrants have held marches and rallies in Tel Aviv to protest the implementation of the amendment to the Anti-Infiltration Law and the Holot open detention facility in the South, where hundreds of African migrants have been jailed since it opened last month. Following the opening of the facility, hundreds of Africans walked out and began marching to Beersheba and later Jerusalem. It was an act that marked the beginning of what appears to be a full-on grassroots protest movement by the African asylum-seeker community, which numbers around 54,000 in Israel, according to official government figures.
On Facebook, Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu wrote Sunday that “protests wont help, nor will strikes.
We absolutely stopped the infiltration into Israel and now we are determined to remove from Israel the illegal work infiltrators that entered Israel.”
He added that this year he hopes to double the 2,600 “infiltrators” who left Israel to return to their home countries in 2013.
On Monday, a march is expected to take place from south Tel Aviv to the United Nations High Commission for Refugees offices and a series of foreign embassies in the city. There is a rally planned on Hayarkon Street on Tuesday.
Protester Adam Ahmed, a 39-year-old native of Darfur, said at the rally Sunday that he didn’t think when he arrived in Israel that “things would be like this six years later. That I would still have to go and get my visa renewed every three months.”
He said he came on Sunday because “we need to demand our rights in Israel and if the situation continues like this in Israel it’s not good for anyone.” He added that in the detention centers in the South, asylum-seekers are pressured to go back to their home countries, faced with the threat of spending years in an Israeli prison and given the offer of a one time payment of $3,500.
“They want to send us back to the place we fled,” he said.
Ahmed said he was taking part in the strike and was not reporting to his job at a Tel Aviv-area metal shop.
It’s hard to say how many African migrants in Israel took part in the strike, and how many worked half-days or were already not employed to begin with.
Shabtai Shai, director of the Eilat Hotels Association, estimated that on Sunday around 1,200 African migrants employed by the city’s hotels did not report for work. Shai said the strike has had a big impact on the hotels, and they’ve had to move around the remaining Israeli employees to different tasks, in particular house-keeping, to make up for the lost manpower.
In Tel Aviv, a number of restaurants and bars closed partially or entirely on Sunday, in solidarity with strikers, who included employees of their establishments.
Passing through the rally on Sunday, Tel Aviv resident Dalia Ashkenazi said she has a measure of sympathy for the protesters but that “I told them, because of a small number of them who cause problems with drinking or crime, the rest of them suffer. I think they understood me.”
She added that she “hopes that we can help them, but that we have a lot of our own problems in this country.”
Anwar Suliman, a 33-year-old native of Darfur who has lived in Israel for five years, said Sunday was “like a national holiday of sorts for the refugees.”
“We came from all over the country, from Ashdod, Haifa, Netanya, all over,” he said. “We wanted to be together because our situation has gotten so bad and we need the country to examine our asylum requests and not keep placing us in the detention centers.”
He said protesters agreed they would keep the rallies and marches going until Israel stops the detentions policy and examines their asylum requests, which was in keeping with a message stated by a series of speakers at the rally on Sunday, in between cries of “freedom” and “we are refugees.”
The rally was peaceful and without incident, with police not making any arrests or detaining any of the participants who appeared to number around 20,000 at the square. The police presence was remarkably small for a protest of its size. They said Sunday that they adopted an approach of allowing them to protest peacefully and protecting the march without generating tension.
The protest was the source of criticism and derision for a number of political leaders, including former interior minister Eli Yishai (Shas), known for his antagonism towards African migrants.
“This demonstration is a wakeup call for the government to take action against the infiltrators for the sake of the country,” Yishai said, adding that the move by the migrants to hold such a protest was “arrogant.”
“The State of Israel is at a turning point where it must fail or succeed in remaining a Jewish state,” he said. “The gall and arrogance of the infiltrators, supported by anti-Zionist human rights organizations, in asking for the rights of citizenship while they are simultaneously breaking the law causes worry and anger.”
He called on the State of Israel to deport the migrants and “continue its strong-armed policy against them.”
MK Ayelet Shaked (Bayit Yehudi) criticized what she described as Israeli NGOs propped-up by “millions in donations from Europe,” and she called on Interior Minister Gideon Sa’ar to work to break up the high concentration of African migrants in Israel’s city centers.
As the protest was winding down on Sunday, a young Eritrean man named Shishay, 21, said in broken Hebrew what he was demanding.
“We want freedom and to work legally. We don’t want to go prison.”