Says own 2018 resettlement plan 'would've been a disaster'

‘A real threat’: PM backs widespread arrests, eyes deportations in migrant crackdown

After riots, cabinet members okay administrative detentions, weigh pulling work permits; Netanyahu says they’ll also strive ‘to get all the rest of the illegal infiltrators out’

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (2R) chairs a ministerial meeting in Jerusalem following migrant riots in south Tel Aviv, September 3, 2023 (Haim Zach/GPO)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (2R) chairs a ministerial meeting in Jerusalem following migrant riots in south Tel Aviv, September 3, 2023 (Haim Zach/GPO)

A special ministerial committee convened Sunday in the wake of intense rioting between Eritrean groups on Tel Aviv’s streets over the weekend okayed widespread arrests, allowing police to use an administrative procedure that lowers the evidentiary bar for detention.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu argued that migration from African countries constituted “a real threat to Israel’s character and future as a Jewish and democratic state.”

Some 30,000 migrants, mostly from Sudan and Eritrea, are thought to be in the country, with many of them contending they are refugees from war and oppression. Most African migrants arrived in Israel through Egypt in 2007-2012, before Israel built a barrier along the desert border. Few migrants have arrived since that time.

Some 50 Eritrean nationals are being held following Saturday’s street fighting, with National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir pushing for more “administrative” arrests, Hebrew media reported widely.

Netanyahu, who chaired the ministerial meeting, said the government is “seeking strong steps against rioters, including immediate deportation of those who took part.”

The ministers also agreed to consider canceling work permits for migrants and to advance a new quasi-constitutional Basic Law on immigration.

A cafe in south Tel Aviv, in the aftermath of riots by Eritrean asylum seekers, September 2, 2023. (Omer Fichman/Flash90)

Beyond responding to Saturday’s rioters, Netanyahu said at the meeting that he’d convened the forum “to prepare a complete and updated plan to get all the rest of the illegal infiltrators out of Israel.”

The Israeli right largely rejects African migrants’ claims of asylum-seeking and routinely refers to all migrants, regardless of motives and circumstances, as “infiltrators.”

Netanyahu called the meeting, which included the justice minister, foreign minister, national security minister and interior minister along with other top legal and law enforcement officials, after some 170 people were wounded in Saturday’s hours-long clashes in south Tel Aviv between supporters and opponents of Eritrea’s government.

Eritrean asylum seekers who oppose the regime in Eritrea and pro-regime activists clash with police officers in south Tel Aviv, September 2, 2023. (Omer Fichman/Flash90)

Some 15 people were hospitalized in serious condition following the brawls, and around 50 police officers were hurt as they tried to quell the riots.

Netanyahu said the past threat posed by uncontrolled immigration from Africa had been blocked by the construction of the southern border barrier.

“Building the fence involved overcoming objections by the security establishment and political rivals,” he went on. “We stopped the infiltration altogether, and I’m proud that governments under my leadership did this.”

Netanyahu said that while many of the migrants had departed over the years, tens of thousands remain. He lamented the fact that various government “suggestions” to incentivize migrants to leave had been blocked by the High Court of Justice.

The court in the past blocked jailing migrants for extended periods of time without trial, and also struck down a move to force them to deposit 20 percent of their work salary in a fund, with the money released only upon their departure from the country.

African asylum seekers and human rights activists protest against deportation of asylum seekers at Rabin Square in Tel Aviv on March 24, 2018. (Gili Yaari/Flash90)

“One thing we didn’t suggest, and it’s good that we didn’t, was the UN plan,” Netanyahu said.

He was referring to a 2018 plan he himself engineered, in cooperation with the United Nations and several European nations, which would have seen at least half of the African migrants seeking asylum in Israel resettled abroad. Netanyahu initially celebrated the deal as a landmark achievement, but suspended the move within hours and later canceled it entirely after intense criticism from the right for agreeing to let some remain and receive temporary status in the country.

“The UN plan would have provided citizenship to 16,000 illegal infiltrators and would have created a huge incentive for hundreds of thousands if not millions of Africans to once again come charging into Israel, so it was a bad solution,” he said Sunday.

In later comments Sunday, he said that 2018 plan “would have been a disaster, if we had accepted.” The plan would not have offered citizenship to migrants, only affording them official refugee status.

Saturday’s violence, he said, “crossed a red line. It was hooliganism, bloodshed, a rampage we cannot accept.”

Netanyahu said a step he hoped to take soon was the deportation of regime supporters who took part in the riots, “some one thousand,” in his telling.

“They can, of course, have no claim of seeking asylum. They support this regime. If they support it so much, they can certainly return to their country of origin,” he said.

National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir visits south Tel Aviv on September 3, 2023. (Avshalom Sassoni/Flash90)

On Sunday afternoon, Ben Gvir visited south Tel Aviv, telling those gathered that everyone involved in the unrest a day earlier “will be dealt with.”

But some residents booed the far-right minister and accused him of failing to fulfill his campaign promises to bring order to Israel’s streets.

“Now you remember to come here? Racist,” said one person protesting Ben Gvir, who was met with boos and chants of “shame” and “failure,” the Ynet news site reported.

The minister snapped back at one protester, saying: “How much are you being paid? You seem to have a leftist agenda.” Ben Gvir added that any police officer who opened fire “in self-defense” during Saturday’s chaos will receive his full backing.

On Saturday night members of Netanyahu’s coalition also spoke out in favor of deportations.

“Israel is a nation of laws. Those who riot in the streets, destroy shops and assault police officers must be punished severely and be deported immediately,” Culture Minister Miki Zohar said in a statement. “Everyone who resides here must respect our laws.”

“Tomorrow morning [there should be] lines of buses to deport them!” Likud lawmaker Nissim Vaturi wrote on X. “This is why a reform is needed!!!”

“Saturday’s riots were only a preview of what awaits us if we don’t return the infiltrators to their homelands,” Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich said in a statement of his own. “The High Court of Justice is responsible for these riots. That’s why we’re advancing amendments to the legal system that will allow elected officials to make decisions and execute them.”

Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich leads a faction meeting of his Religious Zionism party at the Knesset, in Jerusalem, July 17, 2023. (Chaim Goldberg/Flash90)

Justice Minister Yariv Levin also said the riots proved the need for the coalition’s judicial overhaul legislation.

“We are fighting for the country to be Jewish and democratic, for the right of the residents of south Tel Aviv and Eilat to live safe lives, so that south Tel Aviv will not turn into the Wild West,” he said in a statement.

Asylum-seekers have been met with antipathy by successive Israeli governments, and face an uncertain future as the state has acknowledged refugee status only in a minuscule number of cases and has led ongoing efforts to make life difficult for them or to deport them outright.

The issue is oft-cited by supporters of the government’s judicial overhaul as an example of court overreach in defiance of public will, while opponents of the overhaul cite the same decisions as proving the court’s key role in protecting human rights.

Proponents of the government’s legal overhaul say the migrants are a major reason the plan must move ahead.

Opposition leader Yair Lapid speaks at a hearing of the Knesset Law and Justice Committee on the ‘reasonableness’ bill, July 11, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Opposition Leader Yair Lapid wrote on X Saturday: “This government promised to handle the immigration crisis. As usual with them, the situation only got worse and chaos reigns. We [the previous government, of which Lapid was a leader] dealt with it quietly, without grand statements, recognizing the complexity of the issue.

“This government is not functioning. After it departs, we will bring back to the table the UN deal that Netanyahu accepted and then canceled due to pressure from the ‘base.’ This will remove most of the labor migrants from south Tel Aviv who are not facing a life-threatening situation.”

Saturday’s riots broke out amid a demonstration against an official Eritrean government event — marking the 30th anniversary of autocratic President Isaias Afwerki’s rise to power. Opponents of the regime, decked in blue, arrived on the scene to demonstrate against supporters, who wore red. The rallies soon devolved into violence that lasted for several hours.

The violence marked a “breach of all the norms that we allow,” said police’s Haim Bublil, Yarkon District chief. “And it created a situation in which we had to use significant means, including live fire by police officers.”

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