It’s Saturday night in south Tel Aviv. Amine Zegata, a 36-year-old refugee from Eritrea is reopening the small bar he owns in the HaTikva neighbourhood. The pub was closed after Jewish Israelis smashed his windows and the bottles within during the race riots two weeks back. But Zegata has been assaulted twice since then. Violence against African refugees is continuing.
On the evening of Wednesday, May 23, Jewish Israelis gathered in south Tel Aviv to protest the presence of Africans in their country. Knesset (parliament) members gave inflammatory speeches at the rally. Miri Regev, a member of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud party, declared that Africans are a “cancer” in Israel’s body. Michael Ben Ari from the far right National Union party claimed that Africans are rapists, and said the “time for talk is over.”
Mobs responded to such speeches by chasing and beating asylum seekers, vandalising African-owned stores, and breaking the windshield of a car carrying African men.
Zegata says, that the violence “isn’t over.” After assaulting him twice following the riots, local Israelis have warned him to stop repairing his bar, and threatened to crack his head open.
Locals have already cracked the new glass storefront Zegata put in to replace the one that was smashed. Speaking to reporters, Zegata says he is less worried about his business than about his safety. “The glass, this isn’t a problem,” he said in fluent Hebrew, pointing to the cracks. “If they break the glass, I can switch it, I can buy a new one. But life, you can’t buy.”
Sigal Rozen of the Israeli NGO Hotline for Migrant Workers says it is impossible to know how many Africans have faced intimidation and assaults in the wake of the race riots. Some asylum seekers have been coming daily to the organisation with complaints about violence, but Rozen says most refugees who have been harassed or attacked by Jewish Israelis do not approach NGOs or the police for help.
Rozen offers the example of a refugee stabbed by Jewish Israelis in south Tel Aviv. Rozen ran into the man as she was visiting Levinsky park in south Tel Aviv where many homeless asylum seekers gather. The man took his shirt off to show her fresh stitches on his stomach. “He said, ‘this is what they did to me in HaTikva neighbourhood.’”
As Zegata and Rozen both point out, violence against African refugees is not new. Four months before the race riots, Zegata was beaten up by a group of Jewish Israeli teenagers. He was hospitalised briefly.
Numerous other attacks have taken place. A particularly brutal incident came last year when some African girls were jumped by a group of Jewish Israeli youth. The teenagers shouted racial slurs at the girls, who are Israeli-born daughters of Nigerian migrants. One of the attackers was armed with a knife. One girl needed medical treatment for her injuries.
Some Africans in south Tel Aviv say they face constant harassment from Jewish Israeli residents. Zegata opened his bar eight months ago and has had trouble for six months. Several months ago, he also had problems at home. After returning from work late one night, someone opened the window and dropped lit matches into his apartment.
Abraham Alu is a 35-year-old refugee from South Sudan who sells plastic shoes on a busy pedestrian thoroughfare in the Neve Shaanan neighbourhood. Locals approach him nearly every day, telling him to “go home”.
Alu is frightened and feels that he and other Africans need to leave Israel for their own safety. But, he said, “There’s nowhere to go.”
Alu fled then south Sudan when he was seven after he saw his mother and father murdered by Arab militiamen. He eventually ended up in Egypt where refugees are not permitted to work legally. In 2005, Alu was one of the 3,000 African asylum seekers who spent three months camped out in front of the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR) offices in Cairo to protest their treatment.
The demonstrators also called on the UNHCR to help them move to other countries. Egyptian police put the protest down with water cannons and batons, leading to the death of more than 20 Africans, including a four-year-old girl. Fearing for his life, Alu headed to Israel.
Israel is home to approximately 60,000 African asylum seekers, 85 percent of them from Eritrea and Sudan. These men, women, and children get group protection against deportation, and Israel gives visas to the refugees. Although they remain in the state legally, the state does not allow the refugees to work.
African asylum seekers take odd jobs and crowd into cheap apartments in poor neighbourhoods, including south Tel Aviv. Those who cannot scrape together the money for rent live in parks.
Knesset members have participated in anti-African protests like the one that led to violence last month since the demonstrations began in 2010. Most of the Knesset members who have joined in are from the far right. But Regev’s Likud is a mainstream party led by Netanyahu – a popular prime minister who enjoys high approval ratings from the Israeli public.
While Regev faced sharp criticism for inciting violence against African refugees, government officials have long used inflammatory language. Speaking to Army Radio in 2009, Interior Minister Eli Yishai said that asylum seekers bring “a profusion of diseases” to the country. In 2010, Netanyahu remarked that Africans pose “a concrete threat to the Jewish and democratic character” of Israel.