Over 150 people were reported injured in Tel Aviv Saturday, including some 15 seriously, as asylum seekers from Eritrea protesting against their government clashed with supporters of the regime, and as both groups clashed with police trying to impose order.
The chaos broke out amid a demonstration against an official Eritrean government event — marking the 30th anniversary of the current ruler’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.
Eritreans from both sides faced off with construction lumber, pieces of metal, rocks and at least one axe, tearing through a neighborhood of south Tel Aviv where many asylum seekers live. Protesters smashed shop windows and police cars, and blood spatter was seen on sidewalks.
Police in riot gear shot tear gas, stun grenades and live rounds while officers on horseback tried to control the protesters, who broke through barricades and hurled rocks at the police. Police said officers resorted to live fire when they felt their lives were in danger.
The Magen David Adom emergency service said the injured included 30 police officers who suffered light-to-moderate wounds.
Tel Aviv’s Ichilov Medical Center said it treated 14 seriously injured individuals, 11 of them from gunshot wounds, including four people who underwent surgery. Other injuries included stabbings and head wounds.
Injured demonstrators were also taken to the Wolfson Medical Center in Holon. There was no immediate statement from the hospital on the conditions of the wounded who were taken there.
Prof. Ronni Gamzu, administrator of Ichilov Medical Center, said the hospital found itself dealing with a mass casualty incident on a scale he “can not” recall experiencing during his time in the role.
Police said in a statement that officers fired in the air when protesters outside a venue where the Eritrean embassy planned to hold a “festival” broke through police barriers on Yad Harutzim Street and began to riot.
According to the statement, the officers fired as they felt their lives were in danger and there were three injuries as a result. It was unclear if any civilians were carrying firearms.
Police said officers were injured when rioters threw rocks and planks of wood at them.
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.”
זירת קרב בדרום תל אביב. העימותים התחדשו עם זריקת מקלות, בקבוקים ואבנים, בין הצדדים ועל רכבים שנקלעו למקום
תיעוד: יותם רונן pic.twitter.com/4drKQjmkOZ
— אורי סלע Uri Sela (@uri_sela) September 2, 2023
Hundreds of police officers were deployed to south Tel Aviv in addition to the forces already on the scene, as law enforcement tried to control the spiraling violence.
Videos posted to social media showed street battles between police and rioters, as well as apparently between opposing groups of Eritrean nationals.
המפגינים זרקו אבנים וקרשים לעבר השוטרים, כמה מהם נפצעו. הפ אפ ניפצו חלק מזכוכיות האבנים ברחוב. השוטרים הגיבו בגז מדמיע רימוני הלם וירי באוויר. pic.twitter.com/stjh5JutFj
— Bar Peleg (@bar_peleg) September 2, 2023
A senior police officer told Haaretz that while they had expected some violence, officers had not been prepared for the intensity of the unrest.
“We were very surprised by the level of violence, the kind of scenes you only see in the West Bank,” the unnamed law enforcement official said.
There has been rising scrutiny in recent months over police response to demonstrations.
Later in the evening, police chief Kobi Shabtai insisted that the force had prepared adequately for Saturday’s rallies and had “doubled the forces” securing them.
“Unfortunately the masses simply swamped the forces there, hurled them aside and forced the officers to use live fire.” Shabtai said the police would fully back cops, as the Justice Ministry’s Police Internal Investigations Department announced it would probe the use of live fire during the riots.
A leader of the Eritrean community, identified only as Jonny, told Haaretz that they had asked police ahead of time to cancel the embassy event, warning that there could be disturbances.
“We brought dozens of people to the police and asked them to cancel the regime’s event. We said there would be violence. They didn’t listen to us,” he said.
There have been outbreaks of violence within the Eritrean migrant community in the past, between those who support the regime in their home country and those who oppose it.
In 2019, a regime supporter was stabbed and beaten to death by three other members of the Eritrean community in Tel Aviv.
According to Channel 12 news, around 17,000 Eritrean nationals live in Israel.
Last month, as Eritrea marked 30 years of independence, festivals held by Eritrea’s diaspora in Europe and North America were attacked by exiles. The Eritrean government dismissed them as “asylum scum.”
People who fled the Horn of Africa nation say the violence against the festivals were protests against a repressive government that’s been described as the “North Korea of Africa.”
Hundreds of thousands of people have fled Eritrea over the years, with large numbers setting off into the deserts of Sudan and then North Africa. Many seek to reach safety in Europe, while thousands have arrived in Israel.
President Isaias Afwerki, 77, has led Eritrea since it won independence from Ethiopia in a long guerrilla war. There are no elections, no free press, and exit visas are required.
Many young people are forced into military service with no end date, human rights groups and United Nations experts say.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.