TEL AVIV, Israel (AP) — Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Sunday he wants Eritrean migrants involved in a violent clash in Tel Aviv to be deported immediately and has ordered a plan to remove all of the country’s African migrants.
The remarks came a day after bloody protests by rival groups of Eritreans in south Tel Aviv left dozens of people injured. Eritreans, supporters and opponents of Eritrea’s government, faced off with construction lumber, pieces of metal and rocks, smashing shop windows and police cars. Israeli police in riot gear shot tear gas, stun grenades and live rounds while officers on horseback tried to control the protesters.
The violence on Saturday returned to the fore the issue of migrants, which has long divided Israel. Its resurgence comes as Israel is torn over Netanyahu’s judicial overhaul plan, and supporters cite the migrant issue as a reason why the courts should be reined in, saying they have stood in the way of pushing the migrants out.
“We want harsh measures against the rioters, including the immediate deportation of those who took part,” Netanyahu said in a special ministerial meeting called to deal with the aftermath of the violence.
He requested that the ministers present him with plans “for the removal of all the other illegal infiltrators,” and noted in his remarks that the Supreme Court struck down some measures meant to coerce the migrants to leave.
Under international law, Israel cannot forcibly send migrants back to a country where their life or liberty may be at risk.
Ahead of an official visit to Cyprus, Netanyahu said the ministerial team was seeking to deport 1,000 supporters of the Eritrean government who were involved in Saturday’s violence.
“They have no claim to refugee status. They support this regime,” Netanyahu said. “If they support the regime so much, they would do well to return to their country of origin.”
About 25,000 African migrants live in Israel, mainly from Sudan and Eritrea, who say they fled conflict or repression. Israel recognizes very few as asylum seekers, seeing them overwhelmingly as economic migrants, and says it has no legal obligation to keep them.
The country has tried a variety of tactics to force them out, including sending some to a remote prison, holding part of their wages until they agree to leave the country or offering cash payments to those who agree to move to another country, somewhere in Africa. Critics accuse the government of trying to coerce the migrants into leaving.
Migrants’ supporters say Israel, a country founded upon the ashes of the Holocaust and built up by Jewish refugees, should welcome those seeking asylum. Opponents claim migrants have brought crime to the low-income southern Tel Aviv neighborhoods where they have settled.
On Sunday, Israel’s far-right national security minister, Itamar Ben-Gvir, visited the site of the unrest, voicing his support for the police and calling for those who broke the law to be placed in detention until they are deported. “They don’t need to be here. It’s not their place,” he said.
Some people heckled Ben-Gvir as he walked with a police escort, telling him to “go home.”
Saturday’s clashes came as Eritrean government supporters marked the 30th anniversary of the current ruler’s rise to power, an event held near the Eritrean embassy in south Tel Aviv. Eritrea has one of the world’s worst human rights records and migrants in Israel and elsewhere say they fear death if they were to return.
Critics see Netanyahu’s judicial overhaul plan as a power grab meant to weaken the courts and limit judicial oversight on government decisions and legislation. Supporters say it is meant to restore power to elected legislators and rein in what they say is an interventionist and liberal-leaning justice system.
Similar protests involving rival Eritrean groups have been also popping up in other countries.
On Saturday, Norway’s second-largest city Bergen, witnessed clashes between supporters and opponents of the Eritrean government during a rally commemorating the country’s independence day. Norwegian authorities said government opponents threw bottles and stones at rally participants.
Large numbers of police forces with shields and visors fanned out on the streets, and parts of Bergen’s city center were cordoned off because of the violence. Over 100 people were involved in the clashes and at least three people were detained, while one person was injured, Norwegian authorities said.
In early August, Swedish media reported that about 1,000 protesters stormed an Eritrean festival in Stockholm, the capital, setting booths and cars on fire and using rocks and sticks as weapons, leaving at least 52 people injured and more than 100 people detained.
Eritera’s President Isaias Afwerki, 77, has been in power since 1993 after the country won independence from Ethiopia following a long guerrilla war. There have been no elections and no free media, and exit visas are required for Eritreans to leave the country. Many young people are forced into military service with no end date, human rights groups and United Nations experts say.
Associated Press writer Jari Tanner contributed to this report from Helsinki.
Follow AP’s global migration coverage at https://apnews.com/hub/migration