When the Eritrean community in Israel, currently comprising an estimated 18,000 asylum seekers, heard that their country was planning a celebratory festival in Tel Aviv, they were up in arms. Most of them had fled Eritrea 15 years ago due to the repressive policies implemented by the authoritarian leader Isaias Afwerki, who has ruled the country with an iron fist since it gained independence from Ethiopia in 1993.
Their mistake? In Israel, they thought that they were in a democracy that would listen to, and respect, their concerns. They have by now been disabused of that notion – by racist policies and a prime minister for whom the Eritreans are merely a “problem”. While Canada, the Netherlands and the United Kingdom cancelled the 30-year-anniversary celebrations planned by the Eritrean embassies in their capitals, Israel’s police cited freedom of expression and decided not to call off the party.
When both Eritrean asylum seekers and supporters of Afwerki’s regime gathered outside the event hall, the police also arrived at the scene. Despite warnings voiced by community leaders, however, the officers failed to come sufficiently prepared in terms of numbers and anti-riot gear. Clashes first ensued between the two Eritrean groups, and, when the police tried to impose order, the protesters collided with them as well. Over 100 people were reported injured, including some 19 seriously.
During the clashes, the police also fired live bullets, which explains why several protesters are currently in hospital in intensive care. Not since the October 2000 protests – when police killed 13 Palestinian citizens of Israel – have police fired live ammunition at demonstrators inside the pre-1967 borders. Following the clashes, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu convened a special ministerial team to assess the situation and to determine how to handle “infiltrators who violate the law”. Indeed, after over half a year of failing to come up with a strategy for dealing with the mass (overwhelmingly Jewish) demonstrations against his judicial reforms, Netanyahu was back in his element.
First, he characterised the asylum seekers as criminals and said that “the massive illegal infiltration into Israel from Africa constituted a tangible threat to the future of Israel as a Jewish and democratic state”. He then patted himself on the back for building a fence on Israel’s southern border with Egypt which he claimed stopped “hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of Africans who would have again stormed the State of Israel”. Pointing out that “there remains the problem of those who entered before the fence was completed”, he went on to rally his base against the Supreme Court and all those who have been protesting against the government’s efforts to introduce judicial reforms. “We wanted [to do] more,” he said.
“We proposed a series of steps … but unfortunately all of them were rejected by the High Court of Justice.” Finally, echoing language used by leaders of other dark regimes, he referred to the Eritreans as a “problem” that needed to be resolved and instructed the ministerial forum to “prepare a complete and updated plan to repatriate all of the remaining illegal infiltrators from the State of Israel”.
Netanyahu’s latest comments fit neatly with his efforts to portray himself as Israel’s saviour from Armageddon, but whereas in the past the culprits had been Iran, Hamas, Hezbollah, and Palestinians more generally, the new existential threat emanates from several thousand Eritrean asylum seekers. But who are the people that Netanyahu wants to expel? Often characterised as Africa’s North Korea, Eritrea has institutionalised “forced labour” where mostly men and unmarried women are conscripted into military or civil service indefinitely for low pay – with no say in their profession or work location. Discharge from national service is arbitrary, procedures are opaque, and as Human Rights Watch reports, conscripts are often subjected to inhumane and degrading punishment, including torture.
Disappearances, extrajudicial executions and prolonged detention are also common, and any resistance to Afwerki’s rule is dealt with harshly. That’s why an estimated 580,000 Eritreans have sought asylum in other countries. Moreover, asylum seekers have been targeted for abuses by Eritrean authorities and security forces, both while abroad and in the wake of forced returns from countries like Egypt. Western countries acknowledge the plight of Eritrean asylum seekers, and according to Shira Abu from the Hotline for Refugees and Immigrants in Tel Aviv, “over 80 percent have been recognised as refugees [in other countries], only Israel’s dysfunctional asylum system refuses to examine their applications in accordance with the UN Refugee Convention and internationally accepted standard”. Israel, a country established to house Jewish refugees from Europe, has, as the Palestinians know full well, always resisted extending the cover of international law to non-Jews. Even after Saturday’s clashes, the government does not have a ready-made solution to the Eritrean “problem”. So far, the prosecutors have decided to drop criminal charges against the 50 Eritreans who were arrested in the protests, and they have been moved to administrative detention.
The logic of these moves is clear: the government can imprison the Eritreans without proving criminal wrongdoing, while a criminal record would harm the asylum seeker’s chances of being accepted in another country in a process of “voluntary departure”. The idea is to pressure the Eritreans to leave Israel on their own. Yet, even if the imprisoned protesters were to agree to “voluntary expulsion”, no Western country will easily accept Eritrean asylum seekers who have been living in Israel for 15 years, and there is no clarity on the solutions that the ministerial committee is currently cooking. Perhaps, like the UK’s plan to ship asylum seekers to Rwanda, Israel will enter some kind of nefarious agreement with another African country in exchange for a promise of Israeli weapons or military training, that may or may not be used against that country’s own citizenry.
While within Israel, an apartheid system is used primarily to violate the rights of Palestinians, when it comes to asylum seekers, particularly those from Africa, the logic of apartheid operates on a global scale. The tragic reality is that in this scenario – imprisoning refugees and treating them like criminals – Israel is in no way an outlier on the international scene. We have seen this in the UK’s efforts to deal with its own African migrants. The legal standards pertaining to asylum seekers would not allow repatriation, but this is how global apartheid works in a world divided by haves and have-nots.