Thousands were taking part in a protest in Tel Aviv on Saturday night against the planned deportation of African asylum seekers and migrants.
Protesters marched in the south Tel Aviv neighborhood of Neve Shaanan, where many of the refugees have settled, while calling on the Israeli government to reconsider a December decision stipulating that the Interior Ministry will deport asylum seekers starting in March to African countries with which there are secret agreements. Those countries are believed to be Rwanda and Uganda, although both have denied involvement.
An asylum seeker who refuses deportation will be imprisoned indefinitely in the Saharonim prison.
According to Haaretz, the protest Saturday drew at least 20,000 people. Channel 10 TV said the crowd was estimated at 15,000.
Israel considers the vast majority of the nearly 40,000 African migrants to be job seekers and says it has no legal obligation to keep them. Israeli officials commonly refer to them as “infiltrators.”
The Africans, nearly all from dictatorial Eritrea and war-torn Sudan, say they fled for their lives and face renewed danger if they return. The vast majority arrived between 2006 and 2012.
People with open asylum applications cannot be deported before the applications are resolved. At this point, women and children are also not under threat of deportation.
In recent weeks, groups of Israeli pilots, doctors, writers, former ambassadors, and Holocaust survivors have appealed to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to halt the deportation plan, warning it was unethical and would cause grave damage to Israel’s self-described image as a light unto the nations.
Some American Jewish groups have also urged Israel to reconsider. Even Yad Vashem, Israel’s official Holocaust memorial, weighed in. While rejecting any comparisons between the plight of the migrants and the victims of the Holocaust, it said the issue nonetheless is a “national and international challenge that requires empathy, compassion, and mercy.”
Netanyahu said earlier this month, that “genuine refugees and their families will remain in Israel. We have no obligation to allow illegal labor migrants who are not refugees to remain here.”
The Africans started moving toward Israel in 2005 after neighboring Egypt violently quashed a refugee demonstration and word spread of safety and job opportunities in Israel. Tens of thousands crossed the porous desert border before Israel completed a barrier in 2012 that stopped the influx.
But Israel has struggled with what to do with those already in the country, alternating between plans to deport them and offering them menial jobs in hotels and local municipalities.
The government has denounced the migrants’ prolonged stay and recently voted to begin deporting them to African countries with which they have reached secret agreements. They are believed to be Rwanda and Uganda, allies of Israel, though they both deny any deal exists.
A recent poll by the respected Israel Democracy Institute found two-thirds of the Jewish public agreed with the planned expulsions. The migrants’ best hope may be the government’s lack of preparation. Prison authorities are skeptical they will be able to process the 15,000 to 20,000 expected to be jailed.
On Saturday, ahead of the demonstration, Israeli police said they detained two men, one armed, after they allegedly made online threats to disrupt the rally.
It said the men were “detained for questioning” after a Facebook post apparently calling for a violent counter-protest as opponents of a government crackdown on the migrants gathered in Tel Aviv.
“Friends, it’s happening… the battle to throw out the infiltrators,” said the post, reproduced in a police statement. “It’s time to riot and defend our home.”
Police said comments posted in response to the Facebook entry included “I am armed.”
“Israel police immediately located the two suspects, detained them for questioning, and at the conclusion confiscated from one of the suspects his weapon,” the statement added.
A smaller counter-protest was taking place nearby, Israeli media said, but there were no immediate reports of friction between the two sides. Sheffi Paz, one of the leaders of the campaign to deport the asylum seekers, was arrested.
Police were out in force and said they would not tolerate public disorder.
In 2012, an anti-migrant demonstration in Tel Aviv drew about 1,000 participants and descended into violence and attacks on African-run shops.
Saturday’s solidarity event was initiated by Israeli residents of Neve Shaanan but organizers said they hoped that people would come from all over Israel to show support.
On Wednesday, hundreds of asylum-seekers at a detention center in southern Israel launched an open-ended hunger strike after several of them were transferred to prison in the Negev desert for refusing to leave the Jewish state voluntarily.