Thursday, May 24, 2012

State-sanctioned pogrom in south Tel Aviv

CARNIVAL of Reaction. "Kill Sudanese" says slogan on woman's tee shirt.

TIME was that the Hatikvah district of south Tel Aviv, its name shared with the Zionist anthem and meaning, ironically, "the Hope", was known for housing riots, juvenile delinquency and violent clashes with police. It is still a poor neighbourhood, evidently, but with Israeli politicians concerned that the public is turning from the national "security" obsession to concern about social issues, where better for them to start a racist campaign diverting discontent into mob violence against scapegoats?

Last night thousands of people, including imported thugs and their women cheerleaders, listened to right-wing politicians at a rally in Hatikvah quarter, blaming problems on the mainly African asylum seekers who have arrived in recent years.
'The central demonstration was organized mostly by Likud activists, which was somewhat strange to begin with, as the protest was officially aimed at the Likud led government'.
- Haggai Matar, south Tel Aviv resident reporting for +972 mag
After hearing from Likud politicians and those further to the Right the crowd turned on reporters identified as left-wing and unpatriotic by right-wing activists, and then surged out to beat African men and women on the street, and attack homes and shops. Police said later nine arrests had been made.

Miri Regev of the Likud party had described asylum seekers as a "cancer in our body," and promised to do everything "in order to bring them back to where they belong". Her Likud colleague Danny Danon, who heads a lobby group campaigning against illegal immigration (not to be confused with Israel's illegal settlements) said the only solution to the problem would be to "begin talking about expulsion".

"We must expel the infiltrators from Israel. We should not be afraid to say the words 'expulsion now'," he was reported as saying.

"Dangerous extremists have infiltrated the Knesset and are a real threat to Israeli society" is the comment on Peace Now poster. " Get the dangerous infiltrators away from (our) neighbourhoods." Depicted l-r are Knesset members Miri Regev, Eli Yishai, Michael Ben Ari and Danny Danon, "the agents of racism".

Asylum seekers from Sudan and Eritrea have entered Israel fleeing poverty, oppression and war. The war and regime change in Libya have blocked another escape route, by which people also tried to reach Europe. Those who come to Israel often trek over the border from Sinai, assisted by Bedouin, much as the children of Israel were led by Moses, according to the Bible's Exodus story.

Some are abused and robbed by the people smugglers, before they are dumped on the border. They find no Milk and Honey awaiting, but have to depend on help from Israeli non-governmental agencies and the United Nations High Commission for Refugees, before they can find illegal work. In the poorest areas of Tel Aviv they live among working class Israelis mostly from a Middle Eastern or north African background. Many of the African migrants have to sleep in the parks.

Where south Tel Aviv becomes old Jaffa both Israeli Jews and Arabs face pressure on housing space, not from African migrants, but from landlords and developers eyeing suitable properties for gentrification and profit. Residents face rent increases and evictions. It is a fair bet the Likud politicians won't identify this particular issue as a "cancer".

The aforementioned Bible repeatedly exhorts its readers not to oppress the stranger, "for ye were strangers in Egypt, and know what is in the heart of a stranger". Israeli leaders who claim the book as property deeds for their right to seize West Bank real estate are less interested in such moral injunctions, and it is clear they are either skipped or overridden in the yeshivot where right-wing settlers hang out.

But for a flavour of what took place in south Tel Aviv last night, here is local reporter Haggai Matar:

'Last night I had to flee a raging mob not too far from my home in south Tel Aviv. After long speeches of incitement by right-wing parliamentarians, the masses stormed after me and a fellow journalist, and then turned on African asylum seekers, their businesses and their homes. This is how it happened.

It started out as a fairly quiet demonstration – or demonstrations, to be precise. One small demonstration took place in Shapira, my neighborhood, where several weeks ago an Israeli young man threw Molotov cocktails into asylum seekers’ homes. The dominant discourse here was, as is typical of the neighborhood, more moderate, and focused on blaming the government (and not the asylum seekers) for local hardships in south Tel Aviv.

On my way to the central right-wing demonstration in Hatikva neighborhood, a five minute bike ride to the east, I ran into several dozen demonstrators walking in the opposite direction. It turns out that these were J14 activists from all over the city, who wanted to make a point of the importance of finding solutions to benefit both veteran Israeli communities, struggling to make a living and fearing a rise in crime, and the masses of African asylum seekers who have no jobs and nowhere to go but these parts of the city. They felt unwelcome at the central demonstration and decided to split and form this march. (J14 is the social justice movement which emerged on Israeli streets starting from July 14 last year).

The central demonstration was organized mostly by Likud activists, which was somewhat strange to begin with, as the protest was officially aimed at the Likud led government. It started out quite peacefully, and a group of us journalists and photographers was standing on the side, somewhat bored and discussing plans for the weekend. On the stage, local residents told stories of attacks they experienced by African asylum seekers, while MKs from the Likud and parties further to the right were placing the blame for all the neighborhoods’ hardships on the asylum seekers and “the left.” The crowd was growing uneasy, but none of us thought that this would turn into anything big.

And then it happened

It all started with one woman who came at me out of nowhere, and started screaming: “You throw stones at soldiers! Shame on you! Get the hell out of here!” I tried to say that I have never thrown stones at anybody in my life, but she was not exactly in the mood for dialogue. “You lie! I see you every week on television throwing stones at soldiers and calling them Nazis!”

From this point on everything happened extremely fast. The one woman turned into two, then a group of ten people, which kept on growing. I tried to explain that this was a misunderstanding, that I never attacked any soldier, that I am a resident of Shapira and a journalist covering the protest. But I was talking to myself. Nobody was listening.

Only four seconds or so must have passed before similar charges were leveled at my colleague, Ilan Lior of Ha’aretz, who was standing next to me. “You too throw stones at soldiers! I drive a bus and every week I see you attacking checkpoints!” someone yelled. A hand from the crowd grabbed Ilan’s notepad and threw it in the air. Ilan was trying to say that he was never in the occupied territories and that it’s all a misunderstanding, but he too was talking to himself. Nobody was listening.

At this point, about six Border Police officers showed up and tried to stand between the growing mob and the two of us. I hoped this would help, but soon enough an older woman broke through and leaped towards me, beating my chest, back and hands. I started retreating, knowing that I wouldn’t stand a fighting chance against the masses if I tried to stop her. I lost sight of Ilan. He was sucked into the crowd. I had an open road behind me, I could escape. I feared for Ilan. I feared for myself.

I knew no one would come to my aid. Faced with the angry mob and seeing more people coming from behind me and looking for action – I chose flight. A speaker on the central stage was saying how Daphni Leef and her J14 friends were actually the cause of all “our” problems. I was standing near a police car, wondering how I would get my bike back from the demonstration area, when I heard the loudspeakers announcing that “Haggai Matar is here, and he and his mother are traitors who should be kicked out of the country.” This was really time to split and go home.

nd then the mob began to charge forward

I was walking back towards my part of town when I heard a massive cry, looked back, and was horrified to see the mass – about 1,000 people strong – racing forward in my direction, screaming “Sudanese to Sudan!” Later, I would find out that Ilan managed to escape the crowd around him, that 20 people started to chase him, and that the 20 soon turned into this horde I was seeing. Ilan was grabbed by policemen who possibly saved his life when they tossed him into a police car and got out of there.

I kept on running and reached the Hagana Bridge, separating the greater part of Tel Aviv from its eastern neighborhoods. It is also the bridge separating Hatikva from Shapira, Neve Sha’anan and LevinskyPark, where dozens and hundreds of asylum seekers sleep at nights. Right now this bridge was – like in old times – the last line of defense between the mob and the area most densely populated by foreigners.

Fortunately, the police realized this, and was successful in stopping the human flow on the bridge. Unfortunately, this was not the end. A car packed with Africans was caught in the crowd, its windows shattered, its riders threatened and saved by police. Seeing this from afar I decided it was time to go home, but reports kept flowing in: the mob turned back into Hatikva and attacked asylum seekers’ businesses and homes, looted at least one store, and attacked random black people on the streets. Seventeen were arrested, but the attacks went on for hours.

Morning is now up, broken windows of shops and houses need mending, and the peace is somewhat restored. At the end of the day, we must remember that most of the people in our southern neighborhoods largely live together in peace. Many try to bridge gaps and find solutions. Many on both sides know that their enemy is not the asylum seekers or the local Israeli population but the government – which is both creating this impossibly flammable situation and throwing burning matches into it. But this is not the end of the story. It is only the beginning.'

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