For Eritrean Asylum Seekers in Israel, a New Level of Fear Following Bloody Riot
A September protest in Tel Aviv against the Eritrean regime erupted in mass violence, leaving some 150 people injured and scores arrested. A month on, tensions remain high between supporters and critics of dictator Isaias Afwerki.
About 15 years ago, Kibrom Tewelde was a computer science student at a military-run college in Eritrea. He was part of an illicit group of about 12 people who dared discuss the country’s dictator, Isaias Afwerki. He started to float the idea of waking their fellow students and countrymen to his actions.
The regime uncovered that group, he tells Haaretz over the phone from his Tel Aviv home. Some of its members were arrested – and the others in the group still do not know their whereabouts. Tewelde and two friends (one of whom would later drown in the Mediterranean Sea en route to freedom) fled their homeland.
Tewelde, 37, arrived in Israel in 2008. Today, he heads the Crisis Intervention Center at the Hotline for Refugees and Migrants, and is a member of the Eritrean New Hope organization, which aims to empower Israel’s Eritrean asylum seekers – a community that numbers 17,850, according to Population and Immigration Authority data.
As a prominent activist for those who fled the country, though, he has a target on his back.
“I still don’t go into the Hatikva neighborhood,” he says, referring to the quarter in south Tel Aviv home to many Eritreans. Although he fled the Afwerki regime over a decade ago, he must watch out for its supporters. “They go after everyone who doesn’t support the regime, which frightens everyone. We [activists] know to protect ourselves, because, of course, the threat level against us is higher. We are more careful. But even most of the community that’s not involved in any protests is very scared.”
A divided community
A month ago, the majority of Israelis did not know there are supporters of the Afwerki regime – which has ruled the African state since 1993 – among the country’s Eritrean population (Tewelde puts their number at about 1,500). But on Saturday, September 2, Israelis were introduced to a new aspect of this community: A protest against an Eritrean Embassy event in Tel Aviv devolved into bloody clashes between rival pro- and anti-regime factions. About 150 people, including 49 police officers, were injured by both the riots and the police response, including sponge-tipped bullets and live fire. Sixty-eight Eritreans were arrested in connection with the riot.
The community had warned that scenes of violence would accompany such an event organized by the regime. Sweden, Germany, and Canada have seen similar clashes, and in 2018 Eritrean Independence Day events in Tel Aviv and the small southern city of Kiryat Malakhi ended in brawls between the regime’s proponents and dissenters, and 13 arrests.
Tewelde says that year was particularly volatile; pro-regime agents would attack people they identified as critical of the dictator, usually through online posts.
He elaborates: “We saw the provocations of the regime around the world; there were protests that became riots and the dictator didn’t love it. … The regime’s supporters, accompanied by the dictator himself, declared that Israel is the dictator’s territory – and God help any opposition who would come to protest against their political event.
“For the young people who are against the regime – who are the majority here – it didn’t just frustrate them. It scared the community,” whose members “have escaped from their homes and been far from their families, kids, and parents for over a decade not to endanger their lives and to live in Israel, which has freedom of expression and freedom of movement.
“There’s no way we’ll let the dictator continue persecuting us and silence us in countries where we’ve sought asylum. We felt like they were taking this freedom that Israel gave us, to write and talk about the dictator. And here was a threat that they would silence us.”
Although opponents of the regime are the majority among the asylum seekers, they say its supporters in Israel are more powerful and have the backing of the embassy.
Different circumstances brought them to Israel, explains Halefom Sultan, 41, an asylum seeker and activist. “First, there are people deliberately sent by the regime to spy, force people to support the regime or at least keep silent, oppress or crack opponents of the regime,” he says. “There are also victims of that group of people – people made to support the regime by deception or fear.” Others may have individual interests, such as financial benefit or concern for family and property in Eritrea.
In 2018, Yossi Edelstein, head of the Population Authority’s enforcement and foreigners administration, said his agency does not examine whether Eritrean asylum seekers are supporters or opponents of the regime in their native country. Human rights groups also say Israel does not differentiate between the groups, regardless of these deep internal divisions.
Tewelde’s Eritrean New Hope organization sent a letter to the police in late August, urging them to prepare for the potential trouble or to cancel the embassy event altogether.
“The police didn’t listen to our instructions. The event went on, they approved the protest and they approved the Eritrean regime’s political event,” he says.
The protest started quietly, he recalls, and people listened to the police. But at around 11 A.M., the violence began and the police lost control of the event. “The riot was never the goal of the protest. It never intended to harm a single bit of Israeli property or, of course, the police. I’m not justifying the riots or any physical violence from either side. It was a protest that got out of control. … It became an ugly protest that most of the community was ashamed of – including me.”
The riot itself, explains Sultan, was the result of building frustration – both at the Eritrean regime and Israeli government policy. “They suppress it inside Eritrea, but most of the youth are unable to create families here [in Israel]. They are unable even to visit their country. They haven’t seen their families, so they are very frustrated. So many people here are waiting for nothing and they don’t even have a clear near-future, so [there was] a cumulative frustration.”
The problems have not been solved nearly a month on, but the fear remains.
“The dictatorship’s first response was to accuse us – who oppose the regime, the people who protested there and were interviewed on television – of being Mossad spies, and that scared the community,” says Tewelde. “It showed the level of the surveillance of the dictatorship, and people are afraid. They’re afraid of the extreme responses of regime supporters, and they haven’t stopped threatening and scaring people in YouTube videos and on Facebook.”
Some of the pro-regime participants at the riot reportedly had pistols, which would make those threats even more real. The Israel Police, for their part, did not acknowledge live fire from Eritreans at the time, reporting instead that some asylum seekers arrested during the riots were carrying clubs, pepper spray and a Taser. A few days later, though, a pro-Afwerki Eritrean had been arrested on suspicion of carrying a pistol without a license during the riot.
Kibrom Tewelde: “The dictatorship’s first response was to accuse us – who oppose the regime, the people who protested there and were interviewed on television – of being Mossad spies, and that really scared the community.”
“There were 16 people who were wounded [by live fire]; the police took responsibility for six of them,” says Tewelde. “The other 10, we don’t know who hurt them. The regime supporters came prepared … the fact that the police acknowledged that it fired at six people shows the regime supporters came armed, alongside the ambassador,” he claims. “And that has stoked fear in the community.”.
“Our women are very afraid to go out,” he continues. “Women are being threatened – women who support the regime call and threaten them. We heard that in the Hatikva neighborhood, women who support the regime pepper sprayed regime opposers. We can’t go to the places where the regime supporters are. We have experience from the past, from 2018, when people were stabbed and slaughtered by regime supporters on their way to and from work,” he alleges. “We don’t know when they’ll catch us. They have resources; they have people who support them in persecuting us. They don’t just focus on prominent activists like us.”
Activist Sultan says the political ramifications add another concern for the Eritrean community. “People always seem uncomfortable in Israel toward asylum seekers, but now the theory [is more prevalent]. On the one hand, the government of Israel may let [the riot] happen for political reasons to initiate some actions against asylum seekers. On the other hand, the event itself can ignite something against all asylum seekers – even though they are not on the same level, they don’t have the same problem – but the Israeli government will group us together for their political reasons.”