Why were Eritrean factions fighting on the streets of Israel’s Tel Aviv ?

Al-Jazeera  /  September 4, 2023

PM Netanyahu says he wants African ‘infiltrators’ out of Israel after Sunday’s fighting in Tel Aviv.

A large number of Eritreans, some supporting the country’s government and others opposing it, have fought on the streets of Israel.

More than 100 people, including several dozen police officers, were injured during the fighting, but no deaths were reported.

So who are the Eritreans in Israel, why did they fight and what does Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu have planned for them?

Who are they ?

Thousands of Eritreans have arrived in Israel, many fleeing harsh conditions in their home country.

Eritrea has been under the rule of President Isaias Afwerki for more than 30 years after the former partisan led his forces to a victory that ended the 30-year-old war for independence from neighbouring Ethiopia.

The 77-year-old has never held elections or formed a parliament or independent judiciary. He has banned political parties and ranks as one of the worst leaders in the world in terms of freedom of expression and press freedom.

The president also enforces a strict mandatory military service and a forced labour system, which has prompted many Eritreans to flee over the decades, some joining other African refugees who have travelled to Israel.

About 25,000 African refugees are believed to be living in Israel, most of whom are from Sudan and Eritrea.

But Israel recognizes very limited numbers as legitimate asylum seekers, seeing them as mostly economic migrants who must leave.

Why did they fight ?

The fighting broke out on Sunday when the Eritrean embassy in Israel held an event to mark 30 years since independence.

Critics of the Isaias government saw it as a brazen attempt to celebrate a dictator’s rule, so they approached the venue in the hundreds.

They reportedly broke through police barriers as officers appeared unprepared for such large numbers, and videos showed smashed windows of police and other cars as well as damage to nearby stores. The venue was also vandalized with chairs and tables smashed.

Eritreans who were at the event in support of the Isaias government brawled with the protesters. Footage online showed supporters beating protesters with clubs and throwing stones.

“No more dictator,” protesters were seen chanting in videos on social media.

“Why did we run from our country? Because of this dictator. Why are they celebrating here today? Why did the Israeli police give them a permit to celebrate for this dictator?” one protester asked.

Israeli police chased away the crowds using tear gas, stun grenades and live rounds. Some photos showed officers on horseback.

What’s Netanyahu’s plan ?

The Israeli prime minister swiftly condemned the incident and thanked police officers for cracking down on the crowds.

He convened a special ministerial team on Sunday to evaluate ways to handle “illegal infiltrators” who violate the law and constitute a threat to the “future of Israel as a Jewish and a democratic state”.

The premier told the meeting his plan to build a fence on the country’s border with Egypt a decade ago to stop the flow of African refugees had worked, and he slammed the Supreme Court for blocking a number of his other proposals to force out asylum seekers who managed to enter before the fence was erected.

As he praised a decision to ignore a United Nations plan that would give 16,000 asylum seekers citizenship, he said Sunday’s events “crossed a red line” and announced his intention to expel all African migrants.

Can he really expel Africans ?

Over the years, Israel has tried a variety of schemes to force African people out, including sending many to a remote prison, holding part of their wages until they agree to leave the country or offering them cash payments to move somewhere in Africa.

Critics of such tactics have said they show the government’s intentions to try to coerce asylum seekers into leaving Israel.

Israel’s political divisions have also been on display.

Netanyahu’s far-right coalition government called for deportations while blaming the high court for blocking deportation attempts in the past. But opposition members were more moderate, saying governments over the years have not managed to fully grasp and deal with the issue.

Under international law, Israel cannot forcibly send people back to a country where their life or liberty may be at risk.