The quiet that fell upon Levinsky Park in Tel Aviv on Wednesday night was broken only by the sound of wailing – of friends, relatives and asylum- seekers he’d never met, mourning the death of Haptom Zarhum.
There were hundreds of mourners on hand, many holding candles as their eyes welled with tears. There was a large number of white Israelis present in solidarity with the African migrant community, but ultimately they were a small minority, as this tragedy is felt greatest by those who saw one of their own die a horribly brutal death.
It wasn’t the first time that the community held a memorial at Levinsky Park, across the street from the Tel Aviv Central Bus Station. In October 2013, hundreds gathered there to mourn the more than 300 African migrants, mainly from Eritrea and Somalia, lost at sea when their boat capsized off the coast of the Italian island of Lampedusa.
Something felt different this time though, sadder and more personal.
Asylum-seekers at the park on Wednesday night spoke of the killing of Zarhum, 29, from Eritrea – mistaken for a terrorist during Sunday night’s attack in the Beersheba Central Bus Station and shot by a guard and then beaten by a mob – as just the latest in a long line of attacks by Israelis that have left them feeling vulnerable and afraid.
They spoke of the May 2012 riots in south Tel Aviv’s Hatikva neighborhood in which Africans’ stores were ransacked and dark-skinned people caught on the streets were attacked. They spoke of Mordechai Tzerki, the Israeli man who in January 2015 stabbed an Eritrean baby in the head in south Tel Aviv, and later told investigators, “I attacked black terrorists, she’s a black baby,” and that he was trying to stop “black terrorism,” according to his indictment for attempted murder. They spoke of many instances of harassment, violence, and humiliation that have left them feeling exposed.
They also spoke of the new reality in recent weeks, wherein not only do they have to fear knife attacks just like the rest of the civilians in Israel, but now, since Sunday, they have to fear the possibility their fellow civilians could mistake them for an attacker and respond in kind.
There was confusion in the crowd about why Zarhum was beaten even after he was incapacitated.
One Eritrean, giving his name only as Shushay, said he learned as a soldier in Eritrea that if someone comes to attack you and then surrenders, you must give him water and tell your superiors, not beat him mercilessly like an animal.
“If he’s already on the floor, why attack him? It proves they hate black people,” Shushay said.
The racism connection was also made by Uri Shmilovitz, who drove down from Haifa for the ceremony. He held a sign that mentioned a series of atrocities over the past year, including the stabbings at the Jerusalem Gay Pride Parade and the murder of the three members of the Dawabsha family in an arson attack on their house in the Palestinian village of Duma, suspected of being carried out by Jewish extremists.
“There is a connection between this killing [of Zarhum] and all these different murders of minorities recently, of people who are not part of the mainstream,” he said.
Before his death, Zarhum had lived for a few years in Israel and worked at a plant nursery on Moshav Ein Habesor in the Eshkol region near the Gaza Strip.
In a Facebook post that went viral after Zarhum’s death, Neta Singer, a friend and former co-worker from the moshav, wrote that he “was the first to wake up in the morning and the last to leave work. He was always smiling, dancing, laughing and singing. All of the money he made he would send to Egypt, because there was a slight chance they [smugglers] would release his family members there and not murder them at the border and he very, very much wanted them to reach Israel in one piece.
“We worked together and I never once saw him sad or tired. If I could ask him for his forgiveness for what happened, he would surely grant forgiveness.
May his memory be for a blessing,” Singer wrote.
Teklit Michael, 27, has lived in Israel for eight years. He blamed the killing of Zarhum on the policies of the government toward asylum-seekers, saying “People follow the policies of the government. They hear them say bad things about us and they think it, too.”
He said that whenever an Israeli attacks asylum-seekers, “we hear that he was crazy or drunk or it was a mistake, every time,” and that regardless, Sunday night is by no means the first time he or his people feel attacked.
“We don’t feel safe at all. We were victims in Eritrea of the government, in Sinai we were victims of terrorists and smugglers, and here, we are victims of the government,” Michael said, shaking his head and adding, “This is not the first time.”