Levin, Ben Gvir said to suggest moving Eritrean migrants to tony north Tel Aviv

After rioting in city’s south, justice and national security ministers tout plan to forcibly relocate asylum seekers to wealthier, and left-leaning, neighborhoods

National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir visits south Tel Aviv on September 3, 2023, a day after Eritrean migrants rioted in the area. (Avshalom Sassoni/Flash90)
National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir visits south Tel Aviv on September 3, 2023, a day after Eritrean migrants rioted in the area. (Avshalom Sassoni/Flash90)

Justice Minister Yariv Levin and National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir reportedly suggested Sunday that African migrants living in south Tel Aviv be forcibly moved to the ostensibly tony neighborhoods in the north of the city in the wake of intense rioting between Eritrean groups.

The comments were made at a special ministerial committee meeting on the matter, which okayed widespread arrests of suspects in the violence and allowed police to use an administrative procedure that lowers the evidentiary bar for detention.

“Let’s move them to north Tel Aviv,” far-right minister Ben Gvir said, according to Channel 12 news.

“Is it possible to pass legislation that limits their place of residence?” he said.

Levin responded: “Let’s pass such a law. If it was near the homes of specific people, they wouldn’t let it happen… and what about deportation?”

“Let’s challenge the High Court’s decision — they are disconnected from what is happening, live where they live, and are less interested,” Levin said, insinuating that judges would take a harsher stance if the migrants lived in their neighborhoods.

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

State Prosecutor Amit Aisman, one of a number of legal and law enforcement officials at the meeting, reportedly responded that “even if it were possible to deport them, there is no one to take them in.

“And certainly if there are criminal proceedings against them, then they will not want them,” Aisman said.

Ben Gvir’s suggestion was reminiscent of a 2011 stunt in which he took a group of Sudanese refugees to a swimming pool in north Tel Aviv in an attempt to show what he called the “hypocrisy” of the residents of those neighborhoods, who are majority center-left voters.

Hours before Sunday’s meeting, Ben Gvir visited south Tel Aviv where some residents booed the far-right minister and accused him of failing to fulfill his campaign promises to bring order to the streets. The Ynet news site reported he was met with boos and chants of “shame” and “failure.”

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (C) speaks with far-right National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir (R) and Justice Minister Yariv Levin (L) at the Knesset on July 10, 2023. (Menahem Kahana/AFP)

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called the Sunday meeting after at least 170 people were wounded, including police officers, in hours-long clashes on Saturday in south Tel Aviv between supporters and opponents of Eritrea’s government. Around 50 Eritrean nationals are being held, with Ben Gvir pushing for more “administrative” arrests, Hebrew media reported widely.

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

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 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 forcing them to deposit 20 percent of their work salary in a fund, with the money released only upon their departure from the country. The so-called “Deposit Law” had pushed many asylum seekers into even more dire poverty.

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)

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.

“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 refugee status in the country.

Anti-Eritrean government activists, left, clash with supporters of the Eritrean government, in Tel Aviv, Israel, Sept. 2, 2023 (AP Photo/Ohad Zwigenberg)

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

“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,” Levin said in a statement on Saturday.

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.

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.

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.

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