Tesfu Atsbha, 35, stands in the alley behind an unmarked Eritrean community center in south Tel Aviv, just blocks away from the park where a memorial service was held for Habtom Zerhum a few days before. Zerhum, an Eritrean asylum seeker, was killed when he was mistaken for a Palestinian terrorist during an attack on the Beer Sheva bus station. He was shot by an Israeli security guard, and as he lay bleeding on the ground, he was beaten by onlookers. One of them picked up a bench and dropped it on Zerhum’s head.
Atsbha is the chairperson of the Eritrean Solidarity Movement for National Salvation, one of the biggest diaspora-based opposition parties seeking to depose Eritrean dictator Isaias Afwerki. The group’s headquarters are in Ethiopia, where Atsbha lives. He landed in Israel in late October to find its community of 45,000 asylum seekers—most of whom are from Eritrea—in mourning and shock.
Not that things have ever been easy here. When African asylum seekers cross the border from Egypt to Israel, they are imprisoned. After they get out of jail, they are not allowed to work legally. So they take black-market jobs, where they are subject to exploitation. Israeli politicians and the mainstream media call them “infiltrators”—a loaded term that, for many Israelis, is associated with Palestinians. The Prevention of Infiltration Law, which Israel drafted in the early 1950s to stop Palestinian refugees from returning to their homes inside the newly created Jewish state, has been broadened so that the state can use it to detain African asylum seekers as well.
And for many years, the Israeli government refused to process their requests for refuge. Now officials take the paperwork and don’t reply. Or they summarily reject applications for asylum without thoroughly investigating claims, human-rights groups say.
It all stems from the state’s goal to “make their lives miserable”—the laws and policies are meant to deter African asylum seekers from coming, while pressuring those who are here already to leave. So far, it has worked. Several years ago, the community numbered 60,000. The South Sudanese who lived in Israel were deported in 2012; others who faced indefinite detention versus “voluntary deportation” chose to leave. Some who left Israel have tried to go on to Europe; a number drowned in the Mediterranean Sea. A handful were killed by ISIS.
Despite the immense pressure they face in Israel, many Eritreans were surprised by what happened to Zerhum, an event that the Israeli media called a “lynching.” During the interviews I conducted in the wake of his death, some told me that it pointed to how dire their situation is in Israel. Others remarked that it’s yet another tragic reminder of how urgent it is to stop the repression in Eritrea.