Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Sunday called for the deportation of all unauthorized immigrants from Israel, a day after a riot in Tel Aviv between rival groups of Eritreans left more than 100 people injured.
Mr. Netanyahu’s remarks revived a long-running debate about the fate of thousands of mainly Eritrean and Sudanese asylum seekers who entered Israel without permission over the past two decades.
Mr. Netanyahu and other political leaders have often called for their expulsion, spurred by fears that their presence might encourage further waves of immigration that would dilute Israel’s Jewish majority. Rights activists have argued for the refugees to be given formal residency, amid soul-searching among liberals about Israel’s duty, as a country founded by refugees, to provide shelter to other people fleeing hardship.
Speaking to a group of ministers on Sunday morning, the prime minister asked them to prepare “a complete and updated plan to repatriate all of the remaining illegal infiltrators from the State of Israel.” In particular, Mr. Netanyahu said, the government was “seeking strong steps against the rioters, including the immediate expulsion of those who took part” in the unrest on Saturday.
The fighting broke out in southern Tel Aviv after the Eritrean Embassy organized an event celebrating 30 years of independence from Ethiopia. Eritrea, a country of about four million, is ruled by Isaias Afewerki, whom rights activists consider one of the world’s most repressive dictators.
The street fights erupted between supporters and critics of the Eritrean regime, with video footage showing them pelting each other and the police with stones and beating opponents with sticks. Several cars and shop fronts were vandalized, windows were smashed, and the event hall for the independence celebration was wrecked.
To quell the unrest, the police fired live bullets, leading to several people being hospitalized with gunshot wounds. Nearly 50 police officers were among those injured, according to statements by the medical services and the police.
Critics say similar events sponsored by the Eritrean government in other countries have been used to garner support and raise funds in the diaspora. Opponents of the festivals and supporters of the regime in Eritrea have recently clashed in cities in Canada, Germany and Sweden, since the regime’s critics view the celebrations as an insult.
Eritrea’s minister of information, Yemane G. Meskel, has condemned the clashes, accusing Western governments of trying to undermine his country’s progress by supporting those who flee the country. “Complicity in attempts to disrupt decades-old Eritrean Festivals using foreign thugs reflects abject failure of asylum scum,” the minister wrote last month on X, the social media platform formerly known as Twitter.
Eritrea is considered one of the most oppressive and secretive states in Africa, one that limits press freedom and religious liberties, and whose government is accused of committing war crimes. The Horn of Africa nation pushes its own citizens into indefinite conscription, a policy that the United Nations has designated as “enslavement.” Eritrea also collects a “diaspora tax” from citizens abroad, a move that has been criticized by the U.N. Security Council and several European nations.
The repression has driven many Eritreans from their homeland, with hundreds of thousands fleeing to nearby countries that include Ethiopia, Sudan and Uganda. Many Eritreans also seek asylum in Europe, but endure beatings and abuse from desert smugglers in Libya before facing the treacherous waters of the Mediterranean.
Tens of thousands of Eritreans have found their way to Israel, where many have said they face racism and discrimination. Most lead uncertain lives, unable to gain access to health insurance and barred from working in certain professions and cities. The Israeli government at one point deported some to Rwanda as a part of a policy to curb migration.
More broadly, tens of thousands of African immigrants have been living in legal limbo in Israel since the late 2000s, after migrating through the Sinai Desert in Egypt and crossing Israel’s southern border. More than 30,000 have left voluntarily, been deported or been paid to leave.
Roughly 24,000 remain in Israel, many still waiting for their asylum claims to be processed, according to data published in June by Israel’s Interior Ministry.
Few refugees have arrived in Israel since 2013, when an earlier administration led by Mr. Netanyahu erected a fence along Israel’s border with Egypt. On Sunday, he said in a post on X that the fence had “stopped over a million infiltrators from Africa, which would have destroyed our country.”
He added, “Now we will build a fence on our eastern border (Jordan) and ensure that there will be no infiltration from there either.”
There is already a barrier on that border and a river, and few refugees migrate along that route.
Patrick Kingsley reported from Jerusalem, and Abdi Latif Dahir from Nairobi, Kenya.