Tel Aviv, Israel – Halefom Sultan, an Eritrean refugee in Israel living in the diverse central Tel Aviv neighbourhood of Neve Sha’anan, says he is afraid to venture out of his house at night out of fear of violent retribution from pro-regime Eritreans.
He fears that more, he says, than he fears the cries heard around Israel to deport Eritrean asylum seekers – derisively referred to as “infiltrators” in right-wing Israeli discourse.
An event at the nearby Eritrean embassy commemorating the 30th anniversary of Eritrean President Isaias Afwerki’s rise to power descended into violence on Saturday as pro- and anti-regime supporters fought in the streets. More than 170 people were injured, including dozens of police, and about 10 were seriously injured.
Sultan, who was with the anti-Afwerki protesters, says: “I have no choice but to speak out and protest.”
“It was the racist police’s fault,” says an Eritrean refugee who declined to be identified, referring to what even the police acknowledged was a lack of preparation in spite of repeated warnings before the protest by anti-regime Eritreans.
He speaks to Al Jazeera in a park in Neve Sha’anan as a swarm of Israeli border police draw a crowd during an arrest of two people accused of involvement in the riot.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu promised “immediate deportation” of those caught up in Saturday’s demonstrations, and 53 suspects have reportedly already been moved to administrative detention with an uncertain future.
Clashes at events sponsored by the Eritrean government have erupted in cities across the world from Toronto to Stockholm and Giessen, Germany. Sultan believes two factors contributed to the increased violence in Tel Aviv beyond the fierce police response.
“In Israel, it is unique that the entire Eritrean community lives in the same dense neighbourhood,” he explains, saying that this causes ongoing friction between the two groups.
Such tension was demonstrated outside a nursery for children of African refugees, where one of the teachers waiting outside tells Al Jazeera about a confrontation between members of the pro- and anti-government camps: “[On Saturday,] one of the parents was pointing a gun and another a knife and are now both picking up their kids from the same school.”
Freedom of speech and human rights are notoriously limited in Eritrea, which has not held elections since Afwerki led the country to independence from Ethiopia in 1993.
Political parties are banned, and citizens are forced into military service. Many Eritreans find the country so repressive that they flee, many to Europe and Israel.
Anti-government Eritreans have the freedom to speak out against Afwerki’s rule while living abroad, but Sultan says that in Israel, government supporters “feel more comfortable” to oppose the anti-government group because of Israel’s historic ties to the Eritrean government. The current details of Israel’s military and diplomatic relations with Eritrea are unknown to the public.
Sigal Rozen, public policy coordinator for the Tel Aviv-based Hotline for Refugees and Migrants, worries that the government backlash is causing fears beyond the Eritrean community in Israel, where thousands of other vulnerable asylum seekers have an uncertain legal status.
“There is a lot of misunderstanding [around Netanyahu’s call for deportations],” she says of the refugee community in the last few days. “I received a phone call from Ghanaian migrants who thought that all these decrees [in the media] refer to them as well.”
Saturday’s battle is just the latest trial Eritrean asylum seekers have faced since thousands arrived in Israel in 2006. At that time, the knee-jerk reaction of mostly right-wing Israelis was to call them by a recycled derogatory term from Israeli history, “infiltrator”.
Professor Galia Sabra, who studies African migration at Tel Aviv University, explains: “The term ‘infiltrator’ comes from Israeli history in the 1950s when the Fedayeen [Palestinian freedom fighters in Jordan] entered Israel via the Jordan Valley.”
The irony, she highlights, lies in the fact that “anyone who seeks refuge enters without permission since there is no visa” a person can apply for to acquire refugee status before arriving in a safe-haven country.
Sabra, a Jewish Israeli advocate for migrant justice, is among those who are critical of Israel’s refugee determination process, which she says is slow and does not fully follow UN guidelines.
Even when judgements are eventually made, she says: “From thousands of requests, only 20 were accepted, compared with approximately 70 percent in Canada, Sweden or Norway.”
Sabra says it pains her that the current government, dominated by religious Jews, ignores the Torah’s commands to “love the stranger” because “Israel were once strangers in Egypt”.
The Israeli government justifies closing Israel’s doors by claiming it is maintaining the “Jewish demographic character of the state”, she adds.
“I know it is just a political term,” Sultan says about being labelled an “infiltrator”.
“They use it intentionally, so they can do everything they have done to us, … starting with detaining us [in government facilities upon arriving to Israel] and, when we are released from prison, keeping us out of work. … The word ‘infiltrator’ is designed to do these things.”