South Tel Aviv simmers as racial tensions linger

Reporter's Notebook: The theme in Hatikva, both now and for the past couple of years, is one of mutual fear and suspicion.

Aftrican migrants pack after night in TA park_370 (photo credit: Ronen Zvulun/Reuters)
Aftrican migrants pack after night in TA park_370
(photo credit: Ronen Zvulun/Reuters)
“It’s quiet at the moment, but the first time anything happens here, it will all explode again,” said Moshe Tzioni, 79, a lifelong resident of south Tel Aviv’s Hatikva neighborhood.
Three nights earlier, residents of the neighborhood ran amok following an anti-migrant protest, vandalizing and looting African-owned businesses and attacking Africans caught on the street. Like the Shapira neighborhood following a series of Molotov cocktail attacks on the residences of African migrants in April, Hatikva instantly became the center of the clash over the influx of African migrants.
First arriving in Israel in earnest around 2006, the African migrant population is now estimated to number around 60,000, and is increasing by 2,000 to 3,000 per month according to Interior Ministry figures.
The majority are from Eritrea, with the rest mainly from Sudan. Most live in Tel Aviv, and are concentrated in the poor, working-class neighborhoods of south Tel Aviv such as Hatikva.
Tzioni sits in a small social club on Haetzel Street – the main thoroughfare of Hatikva, named after the Irgun, the pre-state Zionist paramilitary organization – while, under faded, framed photos of former Likud prime minister and Irgun commander Menachem Begin, six middle-aged men play gin rummy for a small stack of NIS 50 and NIS 20 bills.
Tzioni pointed at the sidewalk and counted the passersby, most of them Africans, many of them families with baby strollers. At night “you won’t see any Israelis anymore,” he said.
When asked who was to blame for the situation, the government or the asylum-seekers, he said, “The ones who are to blame are the Israelis who rent out their houses to them, who want to make easy money by illegally splitting up the houses and cramming them full of Africans.”
Pulling on a Kent cigarette, a toothless 64-year-old friend of Tzioni named Rahamim Cohen nodded in agreement but took a harsher line, saying how violence could work to drive out the African migrants just as it worked during the second intifada to clear Tel Aviv of Palestinian laborers.
The social club sits a few dozen meters from a small bar run by an Eritrean named Amine that was ransacked by an mob on Wednesday night. On Friday morning, the windows had already been replaced, but Amine said he had no intention of staying in Hatikva and would close the bar for good. He said that while he would lose all the money he invested in opening the business, he feared for his life if he stayed.
The theme in the neighborhood, both now and for the past couple of years, has been one of mutual fear and suspicion, mixed with an anger that at times clouds reality. Both the veteran residents of Hatikva and the African newcomers say they walk around in fear and are left with no protection by the police and local authorities.
The native Israelis say that if they were to get into a fight with an African, they could go to jail, while the asylum-seeker lacks papers and cannot be prosecuted. They also say that many crimes are never reported by police and never make the media.
The Africans tend to say that as illegal asylum-seekers, they have to walk a very thin line and cannot lay their hands on a native Israeli and risk the ire of law enforcement.
In a common refrain among Israelis in neighborhoods that have seen an influx of Africans in recent years, the men at the social club say that after dark the streets become a no-go zone for Jews. Also, though Hatikva and other neighborhoods like it have for decades had a reputation for crime and heavy drug use, residents insist that the Africans brought a level of crime that never existed before, mainly petty theft but also rape and aggravated robbery.
They easily throw out racist cliches, such as that at least a third of the Africans carry AIDS, or that the neighborhood is becoming Harlem before their eyes. At the best, they say that violence is not the answer, but that something must be done by the government to get the Africans out of their neighborhoods, and that otherwise, there will be more and more violent attacks.
Two doors down from the social club is a small kiosk run by a 29-year-old Eritrean named Effi. He said that each night he has his brother come to the store a few minutes before 11 so that he won’t have to close up and walk home alone. He said that on the night of the demonstration, he followed the advice of friends, closed the store early and made his way home long before the riot began. His brother was less lucky, he said, and when the crowd began rampaging down Haetzel Street, he raced home, slamming his front door shut as stones rained down on the house.
Like other Eritreans in Hatikva and elsewhere in south Tel Aviv, Effi said that he and other Africans have been attacked repeatedly by drunk Russian Israelis as well as by youth who ride up on scooters and throw rocks, bottles or stun grenades before tearing off into the night. Effi himself said that on three occasions young people on motor scooters had thrown stun grenades at his store.
“I don’t know why they do this. They say we rape their girls, we are stealing. Maybe they just don’t understand our situation or that we are refugees,” he said, as two Sudanese came in and bought a sack of flour, haggling over the price in Arabic.
Effi said that his family back in Eritrea heard about the riots from Tigrinya-language news outlets online and that they have implored him to stay safe.
“They’re worried, but they know I can’t go back to Eritrea or I’ll be killed,” he added.
On Friday, Tel Aviv police arrested an 18-year-old resident of the city on suspicion of belonging to a gang that targeted Africans for physical assault. Last week, police arrested seven minors and two adults on suspicion of terrorizing the migrants with assaults, which allegedly included the use of clubs and pepper spray.
If the neighborhood is on the verge of explosion and renewed race riots, it is hard to see. With all the talk of mutual terror and suspicion, several groups of Eritrean men sit in circles on Haetzel Street and sip beers and laugh under the warm glow of the streetlights, and within one hour, two Eritrean wedding processions walk down Haetzel and an adjacent street, the groomsmen wearing bright white suits and red vests.
On the main street and up and down the neighborhood’s charming alleyways, Israeli couples and teenagers stroll freely, many of them making their way to synagogue for Shavuot services.
Though police had beefed up their presence in south Tel Aviv following Wednesday’s riot, by Friday evening there was no visible police presence in the heart of Hatikva, and a deceptive sense of serenity hung in the air.
Unlike in Hatikva, nearly all native Israeli residents and business- owners have left the Neveh Sha’anan neighborhood, especially the district’s central pedestrian thoroughfare, which is today the center of Israel’s population of African migrants and Asian and South American foreign workers. Like every Saturday, the streets of the neighborhood were thronged with Africans, and across Levinsky Park, hundreds lay out in the sun or played soccer on the basketball court. It was toward Levinsky Park that a mob of over a hundred Israelis began charging on Wednesday night, yelling “Sudanese to Sudan!” before they were turned back by police.
On Salomon Street, haggard prostitutes, strung-out addicts and Israeli Arab drug dealers loiter in the late afternoon sun. Two Chinese workers begin brawling on the corner of Fein Street, throwing bottles at each other before their friends pull them apart and the group scatters. Further down the street, at 22 Salomon Street, sits an Eritrean-run bar, where a 19- year-old woman was drinking on May 14, before she was followed out by a group of African men she had argued with in the bar who then raped her in a nearby parking lot, according to police.
On the main thoroughfare lies a shelter run by the Bnei Darfur organization, which houses around 150 migrants from Sudan and Eritrea. One migrant, a 21-year-old native of Darfur named Ahmed, said that he and others had heard about the events in Hatikva, but that the building had not beefed up security.
He said that the residents of the shelter are not worried that Israelis will ransack the building, which is inside an unmarked building deep within the pedestrian thoroughfare, but that what they really fear are gangs of marauding drunk Russian youths who after 11 p.m. begin to roam the neighborhood beating Africans.
He also insisted, unsolicited, that he and other African migrants are happy to go back to their home countries, and that they bear no ill will toward the Israeli government.
The Israeli and Russian youths who allegedly target Africans in south Tel Aviv were also mentioned by several Eritreans protesting outside the country’s embassy in Ramat Gan on Friday afternoon.
“I’ve seen a lot of people get hurt, with bottles, chains, fists. I just ran away every time I see them. All you can do is just run away, because if you go to the police they just say, ‘There‘s nothing we can do,’ and just go home,” said David Abraham, a 23-year-old Eritrean resident of Hatikva protesting outside the embassy.
Numbering about 200, the protesters were much more organized than held a year ago, when far fewer came out to demonstrate at the embassy.
Also, due to recent events in south Tel Aviv, there was a large press contingent on the scene, something that was also lacking at last year’s protest.
Holding signs calling for the release of political prisoners, the protesters demanded an end to the dictatorship in Eritrea and the torture and abuse of African migrants by Beduin smugglers in the Sinai Peninsula.
The theme of the protest was clear, the dictatorship must end in Eritrea and Israel must stop supporting the ruling regime.
There was an oft-repeated sentiment that life in Israel had since last year’s protest become perilous and nerve-wracking, but that no better option remains at the moment.
“I want to go back home, no Eritrean wants to stay in Israel, but we can only go back when the dictatorship is gone,” Abraham said, less than 48 hours after the first race riot targeting Israel’s African community.
Yaakov Lappin contributed to this report.