Tel Aviv — Days after Israeli rioters spread through the alleyways of the Hatikvah neighborhood targeting African migrants, the streets of the blue-collar south Tel Aviv district have calmed. But the tension is still palpable.
Gray uniformed border police whose usual job is to patrol the West Bank to guard against Palestinian violence have been deployed to Etzel Street, a strip famous for Middle Eastern barbecue restaurants. It’s not only the weather that has become thick at night: both the Israeli natives of the neighborhood and the African newcomers say they are still afraid of one another.
“I won’t walk over there,” said Limor, a waitress at the Kaysar Restaurant, gesturing across the thoroughfare to the darkened warrens around the Hatikvah market, where she says she fears being mugged or raped. “I’m 41. Why should I have to walk around with a stun gun and pepper spray?”
Just a few days ago, at a demonstration calling on the government to deport the Africans, Knesset members from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud party called the Africans a “plague” and a “cancer.”
Minutes afterward, unidentified Israelis went on a rampage in the neighborhood, first attacking “leftist” reporters covering the event, and then looting and ransacking shops owned by Africans.
The rioting shocked many Israelis, who compared it to the anti-Semitic pogroms of 19th- and 20th-century Europe. It has also raised concern about the combustible social fabric in the hardscrabble neighborhoods in which they reside.
African residents of this neighborhood, which is named for Israel’s national anthem and means “The Hope,” meanwhile, tell stories of continued intimidation by Israeli residents. Yousef, a 22-year-old Eritrean who works in a restaurant kitchen, said that Etzel Street is the “most dangerous” place for Africans and that minors are often the perpetrators of harassment.
“Children make the biggest mess. Yesterday there were problems,” he said. “They come on motor scooters and start beating up people.’’
Several blocks away, Helen Walekel sits in a grocery store that was broken into and looted by Israeli rioters on Wednesday night. It has all been cleaned up except for a refrigerator covered with plastic where a door is missing, part of the approximately $10,000 in damaged goods and stolen cash.
“I am still upset,” she said through a relative who, along with her boyfriend, has been keeping her company at night. “Still now, if I see light-skinned men, I am afraid because of what happened.”
Five years after a trickle of African migrants began slipping into Israel from Egypt fleeing their war-torn country, their numbers are believed to have reached around 60,000 with a large chunk living amid Tel Aviv’s population of 400,000.
While Africans and human rights activists want the government to grant the migrants refugee status, which would allow them to work legally and get social benefits, government ministers and neighborhood activists want the Africans rounded up and deported.
What both sides agree on, however, is that the government is the primary address for blame because it has failed to implement a coherent policy — neither deporting the migrants as it has said it wants to do nor giving them any status in Israel.
But on Tuesday, Netanyahu defended his policy on the migrants. He said that because they threaten Israel’s character as a Jewish democracy, the migrants figure as a top threat to Israel’s national security alongside Iran’s nuclear program and the missile stockpiles around the region.
While denouncing the violence of the south Tel Aviv residents and inflammatory rhetoric of politicians, he insisted that the government of Israel is working “gradually and methodically” to deport the Africans in the framework of international legal norms. The solution, he said, won’t be overnight.
“International law makes it more onerous to extract them… this won’t be ‘wham- bam and it’s over,’’’ he said. “We won’t accept a reality in which an entire continent will come here to work.”
He said Israel wants to expel migrants from South Sudan and is waiting for its Supreme Court to lift an injunction. Despite Netanyahu saying that Israel is involved in quiet talks to expel other migrants, an Israeli diplomatic official said that no talks are underway to repatriate or expel any other group.
“Talks about sending them to a third country are invalid. No one will have them,” the official said. “With Sudan there are no relations and no talks … And Eritrea has been declared by the [United Nations] a danger zone, so no repatriation is possible.’’
Back in the neighborhoods of southern Tel Aviv, the gritty working-class underbelly of Israel’s most glamorous and liberal city, there’s been a transformation over the last few years. For more than a decade these neighborhoods have been home to tens of thousands of guest workers from the Philippines, China and Romania, as well as a sprinkling from Africa.
Now, the Hatikvah neighborhood and the central bus station resemble a little Eritrea, the East African country from where the majority of the migrants hail. In a public park across from the central bus station, dozens of migrants spend the days sitting on cardboard boxes or playground jungle gyms waiting for food donations or the possibility of day work.
In the narrow alleyways of Hatikvah just a few steps off Etzel Street, few Israelis are visible on the streets at night while young Africans stroll among the grocery stores and bars bearing signs in Eritrean. They have all been opened without registering as formal businesses, annoying Israeli residents.
“They are letting them profit in ways we could never do. Take them back to the border,” said Yehezkel, who sells shoes in an outdoor market in southern Tel Aviv. “Israel is for me, not also for Africa.”
But Hatikvah old timers also complain that the migrants are sleeping in the streets and threatening Israelis with violence. A restaurant worker pulls out a smartphone to show a photograph of an African defecating in the street nearby.
The frustration of south Tel Aviv residents is compounded by decades of ethnic bitterness among the working-class Middle Eastern Jews toward the liberal European elites, who are seen as sympathizing with the Africans and ignoring distress of local Israelis.
“The government has placed a distressed population on the backs of another distressed population,” said Shlomo Maslawi, a Tel Aviv City Council member from Netanyahu’s Likud Party, several days before the riots. “I am afraid there will be an explosion.”
When Israel was established several years after the Holocaust, it was envisaged as a haven for Jewish refugees who were being turned away by countries. Few imagined that the embattled tiny country would one day become a destination for distressed groups fleeing the blight of developing countries.
Now, refugee advocates and their allies are accusing Israelis of forgetting their own history.
An advocate for migrant rights accused the prime minister of inflaming public opinion against the refugees to play to populist sentiment and distract public attention from efforts to stage a new wave of socioeconomic protests against government policy.
“What are they going to do about tomorrow? Are they going to do anything tomorrow about it? No. They need the problem to persist … Netanyahu is following the mood,” said Yohannes Bayu, the director of the African Refugee Development Center.
“The exact thing happened to them not too long ago. The Jews were rejected in many places. They seem to forget all these things. The public is forgetting what happened to them and that this country was founded by refugees.”