Violent race riots that shook south Tel Aviv overnight sparked shock in Israel on Thursday, but also prompted top-level calls for the immediate arrest and expulsion of tens of thousands of African migrants.
The latest unrest to sweep the impoverished neighbourhoods around Tel Aviv’s central bus station erupted when a demonstration of around 1,000 people who were protesting against the rising number of Africans moving into the area, turned violent.
“Shock, violence and hatred of foreigners in Tel Aviv” was the headline in the Maariv daily, which described scenes of chaos as demonstrators went on the rampage with sticks and stones, attacking African-run shops and smashing up a car driven by two African men.
“Blacks out!” shouted demonstrators in the crowd, while others yelled: “Send the Sudanese back to Sudan,” several news reports said, as other protesters derided the “bleeding-heart leftists” working to help them.
Most reports said the rally turned nasty after the crowd was whipped up by several racist speeches by right-wing MPs, several of them from the ruling Likud party of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
“The infiltrators are a cancer in our body,” Likud MP Miri Regev told the crowd, as fellow MP Danny Danon shouted: “The infiltrators must be expelled from Israel! Expulsion now!”
Police spokesman Micky Rosenfeld said 20 people had been arrested on suspicion of vandalising shops and attacking cars driven by Africans, but added that there were no reports of anyone being injured.
The police have also extended the remand of seven Israeli minors accused of attacking African immigrants earlier this week, he said.
Interior ministry statistics show there are more than 60,000 African immigrants living illegally in Israel. Some are refugees fleeing persecution back home, while others are economic migrants.
The issue of illegal immigration from Africa has thrown into relief sharp divisions within Israel, with many top officials, including Netanyahu, warning that the growing number of “infiltrators” poses a major threat to the security and identity of the Jewish state.
There was no official response to the violence until late on Thursday when Netanyahu issued a statement promising to resolve “the problem of the infiltrators” by sending them back to their home countries in a process which he said would start “soon.”
“I want to make clear that there is no place for the statements nor the actions which we saw last night,” he said.
“I am saying this both to public figures as well as to residents of south Tel Aviv, whose pain I understand. We will resolve the problem and we will do it responsibly.”
President Shimon Peres said on Thursday night that “hating foreigners is against the foundations of Judaism.”
“I’m well aware of the difficulties encountered by south Tel Aviv residents and the harsh reality they have to deal with, but violence is not the solution to the problem,” he said in a statement released by his office.
And in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, hundreds took to the streets in anti-racism rallies.
Some 200 people carrying signs saying: “Racism is a cancer in the body of the Israeli nation,”:”Enough to incitement” and “I am also a refugee” marched a short distance to the premier’s residence.
In Tel Aviv, a similar number of men and women strode through the city’s streets, starting near the central bus station.
The demonstrators had signs stating “we are all refugees” and “united against racism,” and chanted slogans against Netanyahu and other right-wing lawmakers.
But Interior Minister Eli Yishai, who has frequently tried to expel non-Jewish immigrants sparking accusations of racism, demanded that all Africans living illegally in Israel be put “behind bars.”
“We must put all these infiltrators behind bars in detention and holding centres, then send them home because they come and take work from Israelis,” he told army radio.
Unless the government took urgent action, there would “soon be half a million to a million, and we cannot lose our country to this,” he said.
Wednesday night’s violence made headlines in all the Israeli media, with army radio denouncing it as a “pogrom.”
Residents of south Tel Aviv accuse the immigrants of bringing a wave of theft and violent sex crimes to the area, and have expressed fury over what they see as government inaction.
In a move sure to further raise tensions, a Tel Aviv court on Thursday indicted two African migrants from Sudan and Eritrea on suspicion of raping a woman near the central bus station last week.
And last week, an Israeli was charged with arson after hurling Molotov cocktails at the homes of African migrants in a move reportedly connected to the arrest of three Eritreans in connection with another rape involving a 15-year-old Israeli girl.
In a bid to halt the influx, Israel has been building a 250-kilometre (155-mile) fence along the Egyptian border. It has also built a vast detention centre near the border to house anyone caught crossing the frontier.