Officer hospitalized with serious head injury after migrant clashes in Tel Aviv

Doctors remove part of camping stove from cop’s head; some 50 officers among over 150 wounded in street brawl between supporters and opponents of Eritrean 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)
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)

A police officer was in serious condition after doctors removed part of a camping stove from his head on Saturday, apparently thrown at him during clashes earlier in the day with Eritrean asylum seekers in Tel Aviv.

The officer was hospitalized at Sheba Medical Center near Tel Aviv with the serious injury, Channel 12 reported. He was among about 50 officers who were injured during the hours-long violent clashes between supporters and opponents of Eritrea’s government in south Tel Aviv on Saturday.

The police officers’ injuries predominantly comprised bruises, many resulting from stones and other blunt objects.

Over 150 wounded in total were reported in the violence, 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.

“If we weren’t there today and we wouldn’t have intervened between the two groups of demonstrators — the supporters and opponents of the regime — we would be counting bodies,” a senior police official told Channel 12 Saturday.

“We protected ourselves and tried to separate and calm the field. There were police officers here who feared a danger to their lives and were forced to use live fire. They fired stun grenades in order to disperse the event,” he said.

Anti-Eritrean government activists, left, clash with supporters of the Eritrean government, in Tel Aviv, Israel, Saturday, Sept. 2, 2023. Hundreds of Eritrean asylum seekers smashed shop windows and police cars in Tel Aviv on Saturday and clashed with police during a protest against an event organized by the Eritrea Embassy. (AP/Ohad Zwigenberg)

The director of Ichilov Medical Center in Tel Aviv, where many of the wounded were treated, said Saturday that he could “not recall” a medical event on this scale for the hospital.

Early Sunday, the hospital said 24 people were still hospitalized, including seven in serious condition. The injuries were not life-threatening, the hospital said.

“I do not recall in all my years as director-general such a massive ongoing event with so much uncertainty,” Prof. Ronni Gamzu told Channel 12. “This poses a huge challenge to our staff.”

Gamzu added that he had to go back to the terror bombings of the 1990s and early 2000s to think of an equivalent type of mass casualty event.

The hospital was initially overwhelmed by the sudden influx of wounded people. Gamzu said the event began highly unusually, as the injured began arriving on their own to the hospital rather than through Magen David Adom or other rescue services. Without the initial usual communication with rescue services, it took some time for hospital staff to understand what was going on.

It quickly declared a mass casualty event, cleared six operating rooms, and called in extra staff.

File: Prof. Ronni Gamzu director of Tel Aviv Sourasky Medical Center at the annual Jerusalem Conference of the ‘Besheva’ group in Jerusalem, on March 15, 2021. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Gamzu said that an “additional complication” was to “not only provide regular social support to the patients and their families, but we also need to keep the conflict out of the hospital. People from both sides of this are arriving here and we need to keep them separate.”

By the time the hospital announced the end of the emergency event at 4:15 p.m. on Saturday, 43 patients had been received, 14 of whom were initially in serious condition. Some of the injuries were the result of gunshots and stabbings.

The most seriously injured underwent surgery and were being cared for in the intensive care unit. The rest of the casualties were in light to moderate condition.

Hundreds of doctors and nurses were called in to treat the incoming patients. Some patients underwent brain surgery, officials said.

In addition to Ichilov and Sheba Medical Center, those injured in the clashes were treated at Wolfson Medical Center in Holon, Shamir-Assaf Harofeh Medical Center and Beilinson Medical Center.

Police said that 39 suspects were arrested during the clashes as quiet was restored. Authorities were maintaining a significant presence on the streets and conducting further arrests.

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

While they had been aware of the potential for clashes outside the Eritrean embassy in Tel Aviv as it held an official event, police said they were “surprised” by their intensity.

Haim Bublil, Yarkon District Police chief, said that authorities had coordinated with both sides in the lead-up to the event, but the groups did not adhere to requirements set up by the police.

“Opponents of the regime broke through the barriers, fought with police, threw rocks and fencing. We used crowd dispersal methods. We were surprised by the intensity of the violence,” Bublil said.

“It was a breach of all the norms that we allow,” said Bublil. “And it created a situation in which we had to use significant means, including live fire by police officers.”

Representatives of the Eritrean community in Israel said that they had warned police a week ago over threats of violence surrounding the event hosted by the Eritrean embassy.

Eritreans make up the majority of the more than 30,000 African asylum-seekers in Israel. Most asylum seekers arrived in Israel through Egypt between 2007-2012.

Those who arrived say they fled danger and persecution from a country known as the “North Korea of Africa,” with forced lifetime military conscription in slavery-like conditions.

President Isaias Afwerki, 77, has led Eritrea since 1993, taking power after the country won independence from Ethiopia in a long guerrilla war. Since Afwerki took power, there have been no elections or free media, 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.

Eritrean asylum seekers who oppose the regime in Eritrea protest outside a conference of regime supporters in south Tel Aviv, September 2, 2023. (Itai Ron/Flash90)

The nation on the Horn of Africa has one of the world’s worst human rights records, and the asylum-seekers fear death if they were to return.

In Israel, migrants and asylum-seekers face an uncertain future as the state makes attempts to make life difficult and deport them. The legal status of most of the Eritrean community in Israel is that of “infiltrators,” as asylum requests are often not checked, rejected outright, or never filed by migrants.

Government and Knesset efforts to entice members of the Eritrean community to leave the country or to deport them forcefully have been repeatedly struck down by the High Court of Justice. 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.

Saturday’s violence is not isolated — last month, as Eritrea marked 30 years of independence, festivals held by Eritrea’s government and diaspora in Europe and North America were attacked by exiles. The Eritrean government dismissed them as “asylum scum.”

Renee Ghert-Zand and the Associated Press contributed reporting.

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