Rival Eritrean groups clash in Israel, leaving dozens hurt in worst confrontation in recent memory

TEL AVIV, Israel (AP) — Hundreds of Eritrean government supporters and opponents clashed with each other and with Israeli police Saturday, leaving dozens injured in one of the most violent street confrontations among African asylum seekers and migrants in Tel Aviv in recent memory.

Among those hurt were 30 police officers and three protesters hit by police fire.

Eritreans from both sides faced off with construction lumber, pieces of metal, rocks and at least one axe, tearing through a neighborhood of south Tel Aviv where many asylum seekers live. Protesters smashed shop windows and police cars, and blood spatter was seen on sidewalks. One government supporter was lying in a puddle of blood in a children’s playground.

Israeli police in riot gear shot tear gas, stun grenades and live rounds while officers on horseback tried to control the protesters, who broke through barricades and hurled chunks rocks at the police. Police said officers resorted to live fire when they felt their lives were in danger.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said he would convene a meeting Sunday to discuss steps against those who participated in the clashes, including deportations. A statement by his office referred to them as “illegal infiltrators.”

The clashes came as Eritrean government supporters marked the 30th anniversary of the current ruler's rise to power. The event was held near the Eritrean embassy in south Tel Aviv. Eritrea has one of the world's worst human rights records. Asylum seekers in Israel and elsewhere say they fear death if they were to return.

Police said Eritrean government supporters and opponents had received permission for separate events Saturday, and had promised to stay away from each other.

At some point, the promises were broken, said Chaim Bublil, a Tel Aviv police commander.

“A decision was made by the government opponents to break through the barriers, to clash with the police, to throw stones, to hit police officers,” Bublil told reporters at the scene.

He said the police had arrested 39 people and confiscated tasers, knives and clubs.

The Magen David Adom rescue service said at least 114 people were hurt, including eight who were in serious condition. The others had moderate or mild injuries. Of those hurt, 30 were police officers, said Bublil.

A spokesperson for Tel Aviv’s Ichilov Hospital said it was treating 11 patients for gunshot wounds. Police said three protesters were wounded by police fire.

By late Saturday afternoon, the clashes had stopped. Police were still rounding up protesters, putting them on buses.

Many of the anti-government protesters wore sky blue shirts designed after Eritrea's 1952 flag, a symbol of opposition to the government of the east African country, while government supporters wore purple shirts with a map of Eritrea.

Eritreans make up the majority of the more than 30,000 African asylum seekers in Israel. They say they fled danger and persecution from a country known as the “North Korea of Africa” with forced lifetime military conscription in slavery-like conditions. Eritrea's government has denounced anti-government protesters as “ asylum scum ” who have marched against similar events in Europe and North America.

President Isaias Afwerki, 77, has led Eritrea since 1993, taking power after the country won independence from Ethiopia after a long guerrilla war. There have been no elections and there’s no free media. Exit visas are required for Eritreans to leave the country. Many young people are forced into military service with no end date, human rights groups and United Nations experts say.

In Israel, they face an uncertain future as the state has attempted to deport them. But despite the struggle to stay, in often squalid conditions, many say they enjoy some freedoms they never would have at home — like the right to protest.

Eritrean asylum seekers are often “hunted and harassed” by the Eritrean government and its supporters inside Israel, said Sigal Rozen, from the Tel Aviv-based human rights organization Hotline for Refugees and Migrants.

Events like the one held in Tel Aviv on Saturday are controversial because they raise money for the heavily sanctioned government and are used to pressure Eritreans far from home, said Elizabeth Chyrum, director of the London-based Human Rights Concern — Eritrea.


McNeil reported from Jerusalem.