'Maybe we’ll sell and leave'

In Tel Aviv’s tense south, business owners guard stores damaged in Eritrean riots

An eruption of violence, ostensibly over politics in Eritrea, has left some stakeholders in despair about the area’s prospects

Cnaan Lidor is The Times of Israel's Jewish World reporter

Eritrean protesters clash with Israeli riot police in Tel Aviv, Israel, Saturday, September 2, 2023. (AP/Ohad Zwigenberg)
Eritrean protesters clash with Israeli riot police in Tel Aviv, Israel, Saturday, September 2, 2023. (AP/Ohad Zwigenberg)

On Sundays, Noam and Shaul Levy normally arrive at the crack of dawn to open their restaurant in time for the breakfast rush of patrons from the many nearby offices in south Tel Aviv.

But this Sunday was not normal.

Their veteran restaurant, Bechor & Shoshi, had its glass façade shattered during clashes the previous day between rival factions of Eritrean immigrants, and between the Eritreans and police, who struggled for hours to gain control of a brawl that spiraled into a riot.

The eatery’s neighborhood, a tense part of the city, is known to locals as Little Asmara for the many Eritreans who live here.

“We opened 20 years ago because we believed in the place’s potential,” Noam Levy told The Times of Israel as he piled up the shards that were once a façade that cost about $20,000 to install, and which is only partially insured.

“But it’s only getting more difficult each year. Maybe we’ll sell and leave the neighborhood,” said Levy, whose restaurant specializes in Libyan food. “Hell, maybe we’ll leave this crazy country.”

Noam Levy inspects the damage at his restaurant, sustained during a riot by Eritrean immigrants on Sept. 2, 2023 in Tel Aviv, Israel. (Canaan Lidor /Times of Israel)

He called the riots “pogroms” but declined to offer any opinion on what form Israel’s immigration policy should take.

For some residents and business owners of south Tel Aviv, the clashes were the latest manifestation of an immigration crisis — which they tied to neglect by authorities — that’s squandering the area’s potential to become one of the priciest in the Middle East.

For some of the Eritreans, the violence was an unusual eruption born of a fleeting political constellation.

Eritrean protesters clash with Israeli riot police in Tel Aviv, September 2, 2023. (AP Photo/Ohad Zwigenberg)

The riots turned Yad Harutzim, a quiet street with several restaurants, into something resembling a war zone. Footage from the clashes showed hundreds of people fighting, hurling rocks and chairs at each other as police, some of them mounted on horses, appeared powerless to stop the violence.

Several cafes had shattered glass panels and stone bits littering the seating areas. The events venue where the brawl broke out had scorch marks, and outside Levy’s business a banged-up scooter that rioters used as a bludgeon to smash the façade was leaning on a scarred tree trunk.

Broken glass, sabotaged restaurants and bars, a day after a rampage in southern Tel Aviv, when asylum seekers who support the Eritrean regime clashed with those opposing the regime, and with Israeli police, September 03, 2023. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

Levy rushed to the scene as soon as he heard the news, but he was too late to stop the damage. One of his employees, an Eritrean immigrant named Tanum, is in the hospital with a head injury he sustained while trying to guard the business from rioters. The Levys are going to guard the restaurant until a new glass façade is installed, they said.

“This whole thing is on the margins, not something we Eritreans are even busy with on a day-to-day level,” said Johnny Ranemaskal, a 32-year-old restaurant worker who came to Israel illegally in 2011. “It’s a hardcore of pro-government people and anti-government people who had a fight.”

Women sit at a café against glass panes shattered during a riot that erupted on September 2, 2023 in Tel Aviv, Israel. (Canaan Lidor ; Times of Israel)

Like multiple Eritreans interviewed for this article, Ranemaskal declined to say where he stands on the dispute or have his picture taken. But he gave some indications. “Eritrea is a military dictatorship. It’s awful there. Now the embassy wants to make an event that says all is fine in Eritrea,” he said.

Witnesses of the riots said hundreds of people wearing blue shirts clashed with participants and organizers — many of them in red and yellow shirts — of a cultural event that was organized by the Eritrean embassy in Israel and was, according to the blue-clad group, supportive of the regime of President Isaias Afwerki.

Ranemaskal added that he does not view the fight as an ideological clash about what happens in Eritrea, but rather a dispute between Eritreans living in Israel on developments that could undermine their semi-official refugee status here. “If they say it’s so good in Eritrea, then everybody in Israel will ask: ‘Well, why aren’t the Eritreans going back then?’ We don’t want to go back and we don’t want the Israelis to think it’s okay to send us back,” he said.

Former prime minister Naftali Bennett already in 2018 connected support for the regime in Eritrea with the legitimacy of the asylum-seeker status of Eritreans.

“Would refugees escaping the regime’s horrors attend a party of that regime? People, these are illegal immigrants, not refugees,” Bennett wrote about a picture showing hundreds of Eritreans attending an earlier cultural event organized by their country’s embassy in Israel.

Dozens of people were hospitalized, some in critical condition, following the clashes Sunday. About 50 police officers were wounded, and some officers allegedly in fear for their lives opened fire on protesters.

It was by far the worst eruption of violence in years by Eritreans, who had arrived on foot by the thousands, along with Sudanese immigrants, before the completion in 2013 of a robust barrier along the Israeli-Egyptian border.

Out of about 18,000 Eritreans who are believed to be living in Israel since emigration from that country began in the 2000s, only about 50 have been given refugee status.

Critics of Israel’s immigration policy vis-a-vis Eritreans say it’s discriminatory and inhumane. Its advocates say that legally, it complies with the United Nations’ “first country of asylum” principle – Eritreans typically cross through Sudan and Egypt to get to Israel — and that morally it is grounded in Israel’s existence as a national home for Jews.

A young man of African descent is seen in Levinsky Park in south Tel Aviv, December 24, 2014. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)

But for almost all the Eritreans living in Israel, the situation means living in limbo: They can work, get basic medical insurance, register as residents of municipalities, and enroll their children in public schools. But they are neither citizens nor can they undergo any naturalization process and may be subject to deportations.

Israelis living in south Tel Aviv, which was a poor neighborhood before Eritreans began to settle in it, say they are feeling abandoned by authorities and terrorized by a demographic with many single men.

The Supreme Court and previous governments headed by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu have clashed over the government’s attempts to repatriate, deport and encourage the emigration of Eritreans. The court has intervened four times, voiding practices it deemed too restrictive and in violation of the immigrants’ human rights.

Netanyahu in 2018 pulled out a of deal with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees for facilitating the emigration of about 16,000 Eritreans, mostly single men, in exchange for regulating the stay of 16,000 others, predominantly married individuals. Netanyahu had announced the plan but almost immediately took it off the table following pressure by anti-immigration activists and future prime minister Bennett, who, as Netanyahu’s education minister at the time, said it created a dangerous precedent.

Netanyahu said following Saturday’s riots that they were “an unacceptable crossing of a red line,” adding that he was seeking the deportation of all the 50 or so rioters in custody.

“I’m having trouble seeing what problem we’d have with those who declare themselves to be supporters of the regime as they certainly can’t claim to be refugees,” Netanyahu wrote on X, formerly Twitter. He also said he’d convened an action team and tasked it with making “a comprehensive and up-to-date plan for extracting all those remaining illegally from the State of Israel.”

The government offers a grant of more than $3,000 to Eritreans who agree to leave. About 1,900 Eritreans took the cash and left this year, according to the Ynet news outlet.

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

Avi Lozar, a clothing store owner on Yad Harutzim Street, blamed the Supreme Court for the harsh reality in southern Tel Aviv, where multiple parks have become hangout areas for drug addicts, including Africans.

“This is on the Supreme Court. Don’t pick on the police, who were overwhelmed by something that escalated quickly, or the lower courts. It’s the Supreme Court preventing a solution to this immigration problem,” he said.

ASSAF, a nonprofit advocating immigrants’ rights in Israel, has praised the Supreme Court’s rulings on immigration from Africa, saying they upheld how “refugees and asylum seekers are an inseparable part of society, with a right to life in dignity, safety, belonging and equality in Israel.”

Eli Mualem, right, and David Bar-David work at Mualem’s printing shop on Sept. 3, 2023 in the wake of a riot by Eritrean immigrants on Yad Haruzim Street in Tel Aviv, Israel. (Canaan Lidor / Times of Israel)

Eli Mualem, a 61-year-old printing shop owner whose shop is on Yad Harutzim Street, called the riots an “eruption of anger may have been headlined as an internal conflict, but really it’s the result of frustrations over how they live here.” The riots, he added, were born of “a combination of miseries that came to the surface.”

Mualem blames the violence on “extremists from the Eritrean side,” he said. But he is optimistic. “Look, it’s kind of dicey now but let’s not forget this is a tiny community that is largely peaceful,” he said of the Eritreans. “Let’s not get carried away. With the right incentives — and disincentives – they will find their place here with us.”

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