Netanyahu says government will look into deporting migrants who rioted in Tel Aviv

Yariv Levin and other ministers argue day’s unrest is proof of need to overhaul judicial system; police chiefs back cops who used live fire against rioters

Eritrean migrants who oppose and support that country's regime clash in south Tel Aviv, September 2, 2023 (Omer Fichman/Flash90)
Eritrean migrants who oppose and support that country's regime clash in south Tel Aviv, September 2, 2023 (Omer Fichman/Flash90)

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s office announced Saturday night that he and a team of ministers would look into the possibility of deporting Eritrean migrants who behaved violently during the day’s intense rioting in Tel Aviv.

The violent afternoon clashes in southern Tel Aviv between Eritrean migrants supporting and opposing the government in Asmara saw over 150 injured, including some 15 in serious condition. Around 30 policemen were hurt.

“The prime minister has decided to convene a special ministerial team to review the possibility of taking action against illegal infiltrators who took part in the unrest, including deportation,” the Prime Minister’s Office said.

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

According to the announcement, the team will meet on Sunday.

Members of Netanyahu’s coalition seemed determined to follow through with deportations.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu leads a cabinet meeting, at the Prime Minister’s Office in Jerusalem on August 27, 2023. (Sraya Diamant/Flash90)

“Israel is a country of law. 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 promo for 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 leading amendments to the legal system that will allow elected officials to make decisions and execute them.”

Eritrean asylum seekers protest against the regime, in Tel Aviv, September 2, 2023 (Avshalom Sassoni/Flash90)

Justice Minister Yariv Levin also said the riots proved why the coalition’s judicial overhaul legislation was needed.

“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, while pointing to past High Court decisions that had barred the government from jailing asylum seekers for extended periods without trial.

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.

Government and Knesset efforts to force migrants out have been repeatedly struck down or limited by the High Court of Justice, which has said a solution in line with international norms must be found.

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.

In 2018, Netanyahu, then also the prime minister, announced a landmark deal with the United Nations to resettle abroad at least half of the African migrants seeking asylum in his country, but suspended the move within hours and later canceled it after intense criticism from the right for agreeing to let some remain.

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 dealt with it quietly, without grand statements, recognizing the complexity of the issue.

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)

“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.”

Benny Gantz, leader of the opposition’s National Unity party, said in a statement: “What happened today on the streets of Tel Aviv is not a legitimate protest, but grave violence.

“The law must be enforced against the rioters, order must be restored, and lessons must be learned from this event and the overall failure under the current government. All this must be done without disregarding the need to formulate a policy that will address the issue of asylum seekers in the long term.”

Meanwhile Saturday evening, the Justice Ministry’s Police Internal Investigations Department announced it would look into police use of live fire in some cases during Saturday’s clashes.

Police argue officers who did so feared for their lives in what was apparently the first time that live fire was used in Israel against protesters since mass unrest in the Arab community in October 2000.

Police chief Kobi Shabtai expressed support for officers’ conduct during the riots, pledging that lawyers would be provided to all police personnel who face investigators. Shabtai also backed Tel Aviv District chief Peretz Amar over accusations that the latter mishandled the riots.

Over 150 people were injured during Saturday’s protests outside the Eritrean embassy in Tel Aviv as brawls broke out between supporters and opponents of the authoritarian regime in Asmara.

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

The chaos broke out amid a demonstration against an official Eritrean government event — marking the 30th anniversary of 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.”

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.

A police car damaged by rioting Eritrean asylum seekers at a protest against the regime in Tel Aviv, September 2, 2023 (Avshalom Sassoni/Flash90)

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.

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