Charly Wegman, AFP
Last updated: 27 May, 2012

Fear and loathing in Tel Aviv as racial tensions soar

Day or night, rain or shine, small groups of African migrants can be found dotting the lawns of Levinsky Park in a rundown area of south Tel Aviv where hundreds of Israelis rioted in protest against them.

“I have fled war and violence in Sudan and now I’m here on the street in constant fear that the police will check me,” 29-year-old Abdul Abed Abdullah tells AFP.

“I have no hope and there’s no work,” he says, dressed in a white shirt and jeans. “I dream of America.”

Three years ago, he sneaked across the border from the Egyptian Sinai into Israel where the comparatively high standard of living makes it a tempting destination for those willing to risk everything for a better life.

Like others who have made the long and dangerous journey, he was guided through the lawless Sinai peninsula by Bedouin smugglers to whom he paid $1,000 (794 euros).

Caught by an Israeli border patrol, he was briefly detained at Ketziot detention camp in the southern Negev desert, but after being checked and given medical treatment, he was released and gravitated towards south Tel Aviv, where most of the new arrivals end up.

But without a work permit, his options are severely limited.

Today, Israel’s interior ministry says there some 55,000 African migrants living illegally in Israel, most of them from Eritrea, Sudan and South Sudan.

And the number is growing.

Since the start of May, 1,600 Africans managed to cross the border into Israel, immigration official Sabine Hadad told AFP, saying that only a very small number are granted refugee status, putting the figure at less than 1,000.

At Levinsky Park, time passes very slowly, punctuated only by night and day and the opening times of the soup kitchen, with the uncertainty about tomorrow pervading everything.

“I’ve been here for five years and I am still caught in the middle of a dispute between the South Sudan embassy, the United Nations and the Israeli authorities, with each holding the other responsible,” says Simon Mayer, a married father of four from South Sudan.

“If I get sick I have nobody to turn to.”

The ongoing uncertainty and rising tension in the area has created a real climate of fear within the African community, he told AFP.

“I’m afraid,” admitted the 30-year-old.

“We are beaten and chased because of the collective stigma given to us by the media and the government,” said Mayer.

He was referring to the growing number of inflammatory statements by Israeli politicians, and negative press coverage, especially following the recent arrest of a number of Africans in connection with violent sex crimes.

Simmering tensions erupted into violence on Wednesday when an anti-immigration protest turned ugly, and hundreds of Israelis went on the rampage, smashing African-run shops and property, chanting of “Blacks out!” and “Send the Sudanese back to Sudan.”

“Eritreans? We have to send them home! They frighten me,” says Ettie, an Israel woman shopping in a gritty south Tel Aviv district ironically named HaTikva, Hebrew for “hope.”

“In the evening, I barricade myself inside the home and I see them draining cans of beer and piling the empties up in the doorways,” she admits.

For some, the Africans are responsible for all of the neighbourhood’s problems.

“They rob the elderly. They are dangerous, violent, threatening, insulting and dirty,” spits a stallholder called Moshe who sells fruit and vegetables.

“These people don’t pay taxes and they drive up housing prices.”

But there are some Israelis in the neighbourhood who have used the growing number of immigrants to turn a quick buck.

“I pay 2,000 shekels (400 euros) to rent a room, where I live with my wife and two children,” said one Eritrean trader, who asked to remain anonymous.

In his small shop, he sells sweets, cigarettes, eggs and beverages.

“My earnings are minimal, but it allows me to get by until things improve, and the dictatorial regime in my country falls,” explains the shopkeeper, an army deserter and one of the rare few registered as a political refugee, which gets him medical benefits and a coveted work permit.

A block away on Neve Shaanan Street, other African streetsellers lay out a pitiful array of wares on the pavement — a pair of old shoes, some second-hand books, a handful of cheap trinkets.

Between two street cafes filled with customers poring over backgammon boards, another African tries to tempt passers-by in to a “peep show”.

“You have to make a living,” he shrugs.

Further the road, Dasta Reuven, a veteran Ethiopian immigrant is having a somewhat surreal conversation with a man from Eritrea.

“This is a land flowing with milk and honey,” he explains in a mixture of Amharic and Tigrinya.

Reuven, a reserve officer in the Israeli army who arrived in 1983 as part of an airlift of Ethiopian Jews, says he has nothing against the newcomers.

“I have nothing against the blacks, as long as they work,” he says.