Tens of thousands of African asylum seekers in Tel Aviv protested in front of eight embassies and United Nations and European Union offices as part of a three-day strike against Israel’s policy of imprisonment for those requesting refugee status, causing the U.S. Embassy to shut down. Israeli onlookers jeered at the marches, shouting “Go home!” and “back to Africa!” as the protesters met for a second day of actions beginning this morning at Levinsky Park near the city’s central bus station, the hub for Israel’s refugees.
At 9:30am protesters broke off into ten groups, thousands in each, and marched to the embassies of the U.S, African Union, Canada, United Kingdom, France, Germany, Sweden and Italy. Additional groups marched on the offices of the United Nations High Council of Refugees and the European Union.
“The Israeli government is a dictator government,” said Father Semerehb an Eritrean Orthodox monk. “They have no democracy here. There is no work, no visa, no green card.” Father Semerehb has lived in Israel for the past three years. “In my nation when I heard of Israel I thought it was very nice,” but now he and 60,000 other asylum seekers are facing imprisonment orders and the end of a de facto Israeli policy to not deport would-be refugees. Many refugees have also received prison summons to show up at a desert detention facility when renewing identification cards over the past week.
Along the protest route to the beachfront U.S. Embassy, tucked between Tel Aviv’s district of seaside hotels, Israeli onlookers shouted disparaging remarks. “Go home! Go home!” bellowed a blond middle-age woman as she threw her torso out of an SUV window. “Back to Africa!” a shopkeeper moaned. The state should “get them to leave here” a waiter said to me. My colleague David Sheen who has covered anti-African racism in Israel more than any other journalist interviewed one Israeli-onlooker who said the march was like a “black plague” upon the Mediterranean city.
But not all Tel Avivians were enraged at the sight of Africans chanting “freedom, not prison” and “we are refugees, we want asylum.” Many were stunned at the amount of demonstrators, “this is not normal, we’ve never seen anything like this,” said a young Israeli barista. “Justice. They deserve rights, they deserve freedom and they deserve to be treated as any Israeli citizen,” said Yossi Cohen, 32, from a corner store while filming the march on his iPhone.
At first sight, foreign embassies are an odd target of protest for those seeking asylum in Israel. Yet reaching to outside countries with safe haven policies is an attempt by protest coordinators to pressure Israel into compliance with international refugee conventions.
“In our desperation for help – We call upon the ambassadors and diplomats in Israel. We know their countries are also dealing with the challenge of many refugees seeking political asylum and protection from persecution, war and genocide,” said organizers of the event in a press release this morning. “Many of our brothers and sisters have arrived at their countries and received asylum, protection and refugee rights.”
At 12:30p.m the crowd outside of the embassy peaked with around 20,000 protesting, approximately one-third of the total African refugee population in Israel. It’s worth noting that the organizing to assemble the three-day strike took coordination from Eritreans, Sudanese and Israelis—populations that until now have not engaged in mass direct actions together.
At 2p.m. the protest in front of the U.S. embassy began waning, with asylum seekers heading back to Levinsky Park.