Violent Riots Target African Nationals Living In Israel

A demonstration held Wednesday night in Tel Aviv in favor of deporting Africans in Israel turned into a frenzied mob. Twelve people were arrested for committing acts of violence and vandalism against Africans. Israel has tens of thousands of African nationals from Darfur and Eritrea. Over the last month, reports have filled the Israeli papers of suspicions that the Africans are responsible for a string of violent crimes, and rapes, though actual evidence only incriminates them in a handful of circumstances.

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In Israel last night, violence broke out in a district of Tel Aviv. A demonstration against the country's large community of African nationals turned into a riot. Shouting slogans, such as blacks out, more than 1,000 Israelis took to the streets and stores belonging to African nationals were attacked and looted.

At least 17 rioters were arrested. Sheera Frenkel reports on the rising tensions over Israel's African community.

SHEERA FRENKEL, BYLINE: N'ola and Haya Hafitz(ph) sit inside the bodega they run in the Hatikva neighborhood of Tel Aviv. Just last night, the street in front of their store was filled with an angry mob, burning trashcans and looting stores. Niall(ph) Hafitz says he understands why people are angry. The neighborhood was poor to begin with and the influx of African nationals looking for work and housing has only made things worse.

The Hafitzs say they weren't part of the mob last night, but they also didn't interfere when the store opposite theirs was attacked. The store owner, Amin Zagatar(ph), is a Eritrean. He's been living in Tel Aviv for six years and speaks fluent Hebrew. He says he wasn't surprised when the mobs attacked his store.

AMIN ZAGATAR: (Through translator) A group of men had come in the morning and told me they would be back. They asked if I was the owner or if I worked for an Israeli. They threatened me. They said that if I was here when they returned they would kill me.

FRENKEL: It's not the first time Zagatar has been attacked. He says that, two months ago, a group of Russian-speaking men beat him with wooden planks outside his store. And last month, a Molotov cocktail was thrown at the apartment building he shares with dozens of other Eritrean and Sudanese refugees.

ZAGATAR: (Through translator) I'm afraid. Day and night, I'm afraid they will come and get me. I just want to get out of here.

FRENKEL: Over the last decade, more than 60,000 Africans have illegally entered Israel through its porous southern border with Egypt. At last night's rally, Israeli politicians from right wing parties spoke about the fear felt by many Israelis at the presence of African nationals in Tel Aviv.

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FRENKEL: Lawmaker Miri Regev, in Prime Minister Netanyahu's Likud bloc, warned the demonstrators, Africans will overwhelm Israelis in Tel Aviv. The crowd cheered when she described the African community as a cancer. They cheered even louder when she blamed leftists in Israel for preventing the state from deporting the Africans.

Israeli newspapers have been filled with headlines in recent weeks about the links between the African community and crime. In the last 30 days, two cases of rape have been linked to Eritrean men in Tel Aviv. Police say that violent crimes among the community are on the rise. But some Israeli commentators voiced alarm over last night's violence against the Africans.

In the popular Hebrew language daily Maariv, columnist Shai Golden wrote about the shame he felt for the way the refugees are being treated. Israel is a country of refugees, he wrote. It should be the last place where they are persecuted.

For NPR News, I'm Sheera Frenkel.

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