PM, minister call for calm after wave of violence

NGOs dismiss claims by Eritrean Ambassador to Israel that migrants can return to their homeland safely.

Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu 311  (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu 311
(photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and Public Security Minister Yitzhak Aharonovitch called for calm on Thursday, following a night of unprecedented violent disturbances against African migrants in south Tel Aviv. Tensions remained high in the area after 17 local residents were arrested for assaulting migrants, attacking police and looting storefronts belonging to Africans.
“There is no room for the types of comments and actions that we saw last night. I say these things to the general public and to the residents of south Tel Aviv whose pain we understand: We will solve this problem in a responsible manner,” Netanyahu said.
He pledged that the border fence with Egypt would be completed in a number of months, and that Israel would soon begin deporting the illegal immigrants.
“Demonstrations are legitimate, but violence of any kind isn’t,” Aharonovitch said.
The minister rebuked Knesset members who spoke at the rally before it degenerated into violence, saying they “should not get carried away or work up crowds,” and accusing them of “inciting one community against another.”
Earlier on Thursday, the Tel Aviv Magistrate’s Court sent five suspects arrested during the disturbances to house arrest, and kept one in custody, while the youth court sent four minors to house arrest.
Over 1,000 people attended the demonstration in Tel Aviv’s Hatikva neighborhood, holding signs calling for the deportation of the migrants. A group of demonstrators set upon a car containing three migrants in Tel Aviv, smashing its windows and headlights.
Police arrived and pushed back the rioters and the vehicle left the area. The car’s occupants were unharmed.
Tel Aviv Mayor Ron Huldai condemned the violence in an interview to Israel Radio Thursday, and blamed the government for failing to provide any solution. He said the government refused to allow the migrants to work, but would not deport them or place them in an isolated facility, thereby ensuring that they would turn to crime.
Huldai added that he had spent millions of taxpayers’ funds to create schools and improve infrastructure in neighborhoods where the migrants are a majority.
“They are human beings. What can I do, I can’t see human beings thrown into the street,” he said, adding that his measures were only a small portion of what needed to be done.
According to police statistics, crime committed by migrants in south and central Tel Aviv is on the rise, though the offenses are mostly minor property thefts and/or narcotics- related.
Aharonovitch said he agreed with calls to expel those migrants who were not genuine asylum-seekers, and reiterated his criticism of the Interior Ministry’s Oz Unit for failing to fill up a facility in southern Israel built to house 2,000 illegal migrants.
The public security minister also ordered Border Police to reinforce officers at the Levinsky police station near the old central bus station in Tel Aviv on Thursday night.
Interviewing Interior Minister Eli Yishai, Army Radio likened the incident to pogrom attacks on Jews in 19th-century Europe. Yishai bristled at such language, citing police findings that Sudanese and Eritrean migrants were a crime risk.
“I cannot judge a man whose daughter gets raped. I cannot judge a young woman who cannot walk home,” said the Shas party leader.
“I cannot under any circumstances judge people who get abused and harmed, and who are then confronted by the state, which says, ‘Why do you behave this way to the foreigners?’” Yair Lapid, chairman of the new Yesh Atid party, wrote on his Facebook page: “I support arresting and deporting infiltrators, completing the [border] fence and stopping them from entering Israel and I believe human rights organizations should think first about the rights of the neighborhoods’ residents. But when I see a pogrom in the state of Israel, led by inciters like MKs Danon, Regev and Ben- Ari, I wonder from where these people draw the insolence to call themselves ‘Jews.’ “Regev, Danon and Ben-Ari, together with the wild bunch who beat infiltrators on the streets of Tel Aviv, do not understand the meaning of Jewish morals, Jewish collective memory or the meaning of Jewish existence.”
Meanwhile, Eritrean Ambassador to Israel Tesfamariam Tekeste told Israel Radio that the number of actual Eritrean migrants to Israel was being greatly exaggerated. He said his embassy would make every effort to safely return the migrants to their country.
“They are welcome to return. This is their country,” he said, speaking on the same day as Eritrean Independence Day.
But Sigal Rozen, the public policy coordinator of the Hotline for Migrant Workers, made light of the comments.
“Of course they can go back without worrying,” she scoffed, highlighting comments made last year by Israel’s Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon that whoever is returned to the African country would be in grave danger.
She also said that the current Eritrean government’s abuse of human rights is well documented by Human Rights Watch and other groups.
Rozen also refuted politicians’ claims that the majority of the estimated 50,000 illegal African migrants in Israel are merely infiltrators looking for work.
"If you look at statistics from the West, 83 percent of Eritrean migrants who have had their status checked by the authorities were recognized as refugees," she said, adding that one of the central problems is that there is currently no system to officially determine who from Eritrea or Sudan would face danger at the hands of the authorities if they were returned to their country of origin."
One senior government official, however, expressed skepticism about the possibility of deporting the illegal workers.
Most of the illegal workers in the country are believed to be from Eritrea. The UN has established that Eritreans are entitled to asylum and should not be sent back, something Israel will not contravene. No European country returns Eritreans back to their home.
The next largest group of illegal immigrants are from Sudan, a country with which Israel has no diplomatic relations, making deportation there impossible.
A small number of the illegal immigrants are from South Sudan, a strategically important country for Israel that just declared independence last summer.
Betty Ogwar, the country’s agriculture minister who was in the country last week, urged Israel not to repatriate the South Sudanese, because the country is not at the moment able to absorb them.
She said that for humanitarian reasons Israel should give support to the illegal immigrants.
“At the moment South Sudan is only nine months old, so there are so many things that need to be put into place,” she said.
Since South Sudan is important for Israel in terms of stopping the smuggling of arms from Iran through Africa and into the Sinai Peninsula, the official said it would be unlikely for Israel to want to risk a rift with the new country over this issue.
Likewise, the official said that talk about sending the workers to countries in Africa willing to take them in was wishful thinking, since those countries simply do not exist.
The official said the Europeans have been dealing with this type of problem for 30 years, and their experience showed that those illegal workers already in the country are rarely deported, and that all that is left to do is to try and ensure that more don’t make their way across the border.
Reuters contributed to this report.