An eruption of violence against illegal immigrants and Arabs is causing growing concern and controversy in Israel.
An anti-refugee protest in Tel Aviv last week turned into a 1,000-strong riot in which Africans were attacked on the streets. At the rally, Likud Knesset member Miri Regev said that illegal immigrants were a “cancer”.
Also last week, human-rights organisation B’Tselem posted a video which showed Israeli settlers from Yitzhar, near Nablus, firing rubber bullets at Palestinians who were throwing rocks at them. The film showed IDF soldiers standing by and refusing to intervene.
On Sunday, meanwhile, a 22-year-old Palestinian man sustained gunshot wounds in a skirmish with armed settlers south of Nablus.
After widespread criticism and a Facebook campaign against her, Ms Regev was forced into a climb-down. She said: “When I compared the migrant worker phenomenon to cancer I was referring to the way the phenomenon had spread, and not anything else. If anyone took it otherwise and was consequently offended, I apologise.”
Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League, said: “While we recognise the complexity involved in addressing this issue… we are disturbed by inflammatory statements made by certain Israeli officials, some of which has veered into racism.” The Zionist Youth Council, the representative body of British Zionist youth movements, condemned “the violent acts of racism that took place against African asylum seekers”.
Interior Minister Eli Yishai has been among those raising the temperature of the debate over the 50,000 African refugees in Israel. After four Eritrean and Sudanese immigrants were being investigated over rape charges, he said all refugees “should be put into holding cells or jails, given a grant and sent back” home.
He also referred to the immigrants as an existential threat to the state.
Some prominent Israelis joined the ADL and the Zionist Youth Council in objecting to such sentiments. Author Aharon Appelfeld, a Holocaust survivor and the recent winner of the Independent foreign fiction prize, said in an interview with Ma’ariv: “The Torah says: ‘And you know the soul of the stranger because you were strange in the land of Egypt,’ meaning, you know intimately what it means to be a foreigner. This phrase presents us with certain obligations: the obligation to react decently, with humanity, towards the foreigner.”