Four hurt as Africans' home torched in Jerusalem

Ahram Online & AFP, Monday 4 Jun 2012

'Amidst rising xenophobia in Israel, four African migrants suffer burns and smoke inhalation from an arson attack with a 'Get out' love note on their wall

Israel
Israelis chant slogans against African migrants into Israel during a protest in Tel Aviv, Israel, May 23, 2012. (Photo: AP)

Four African migrants were taken to an Israeli hospital with burns and suffering from smoke inhalation on Monday after a deadly arson attempt on the Jerusalem building in which they were living, police said.

The incident, which police described as "very serious," took place in an old two-storey building in a poor neighbourhood near the city's Mahane Yehuda market, just after 3:00am (0000 GMT).

Police said the fire was started in a narrow entrance corridor, which led to several apartments inside the building, home to 18 African migrants. On the external walls of the building, someone had sprayed graffit in Hebrew: "Get out of the neighbourhood."

"There were 18 people living in the building, and the corridor leads to all the apartments," police spokesman Micky Rosenfeld told AFP, indicating that all the residents were of African origin.

"It is obvious that the people living there were targeted and not just the building," he said, adding that at least four people were taken to the hospital, suffering from burns and smoke inhalation.

The attack took place in a small street off Jaffa Road, with the building's entrance corridor completely blackened by the fire, an AFP correspondent at the scene said, indicating it was the only entrance and exit from the apartments.

The incident occurred when a protest by 1,000 people turned violent after several far-right MPs made inflammatory speeches, with one referring to the migrants as "a cancer."

Demonstrators went on the rampage, smashing up and looting African-run shops and property.

No one was injured, but police arrested 20 people on suspicion of vandalism.

Interior ministry statistics show there are approximately 60,000 African immigrants who have entered Israel illegally. Some are refugees fleeing persecution in their home nations, but others are economic migrants.

The rising number of Africans in Israel has hit the headlines in recent weeks, after a spike in racial tensions led to a riot in southern Tel Aviv, where tens of thousands of migrants live.

Anti African- protesters waved Israeli flags and chanted "Deport the Sudanese," in a low-income Tel Aviv neighbourhood where many of the border-jumpers from Eritrea, Sudan and South Sudan live.

Interviewing Interior Minister Eli Yishai, Army Radio likened the incident to pogrom attacks on Jews in 19th century Europe. Yishai bristled at such language, citing police findings that Sudanese and Eritrean migrants were a crime risk.

"I cannot judge a man whose daughter gets raped. I cannot judge a young woman who cannot walk home," said Yishai, who heads a party run by rabbis in the coalition government.

"I cannot under any circumstances judge people who get abused and harmed, and who are then confronted by the state, which says, 'Why do you behave this way to the foreigners?'"

Fleeing poverty, fighting and authoritarian rule, some 60,000 Africans have crossed illegally into Israel through the relatively porous desert border with Egypt in recent years.

That has jarred the Jewish state, with its already ethnically fraught citizen population of 7.8 million. Some Israelis warn of a gathering demographic and economic crisis while others say a country born after the Holocaust has a special responsibility to offer foreigners sanctuary.

Tel Aviv Mayor Ron Huldai said some 15 per cent of city residents were "illegal foreign workers" and the number was growing. Interior Ministry data show 82 per cent of the African migrants are men, 15 per cent women and the rest children.

Limbo

Israel says most of the migrants come seeking work rather than refuge, but this has been challenged by UN humanitarian agencies and civil rights groups. As a result, the Africans are kept in a legal limbo, many of them granted temporary permits but no clear permanent status.

The government is erecting a fortified fence on the Egyptian border and wants to deport the migrants. But it has no ties with Sudan that would allow direct repatriation, and some humanitarian experts say it cannot force subjects of South Sudan and Eritrea back to those impoverished and ravaged states.

Eritrea's ambassador to Israel, Tesfamariam Tekeste, said in a television interview on Tuesday that Asmara would admit its citizens who return voluntarily - but not deportees.

A 1 April expulsion order issued by Yishai against illegal South Sudanese was blocked by a Jerusalem court as it considers an appeal by Israeli human rights activists.

Unchecked, the number of Africans illegally in Israel could reach millions and overwhelm the citizenry, Yishai predicted.

"So what, the State of Israel, as the Jewish state, in the name of democracy, in the name of honouring UN resolutions, [should accept] a recipe for suicide?" he said.

"The truth has to be told, and believe me it is hard and it hurts, as we are the Jewish people, a merciful people."

David Gez, a senior Israeli police officer, said Wednesday's violence was one of several such anti-African incidents this month in Tel Aviv.

Oscar Olivier, a Congolese migrant, said on Army Radio that he has been in Israel for 18 years seeking refugee status and that the public mood reminded him of the assassination in 1995 of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin by an ultranationalist Jew.

"I feel like we're facing a former alcoholic who has started drinking again," he said in fluent Hebrew. "The question is not if they will kill an African because he is black, but when."

Olivier acknowledged the migrants posed problems for Israel but said: "There are professional, reliable, serious, and independent laws and judges. Let them decide what to do and how to do it - just without violence." 

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