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20,000 Israelis protest in Tel Aviv against deportation plan of African migrants

African migrants march from Holot to the Saharonim Prison on February 22, 2018 to protest at the imprisonment of several migrants under a controversial Israeli policy of detention or expulsion
MENAHEM KAHANA (AFP)
Academics published a petition and Israeli Holocaust survivors wrote an open letter to Netanyahu to reconsider

An estimated 20,000 Israelis demonstrated in central Tel Aviv Saturday evening, including some of the 40,000 African asylum seekers subject to a government expulsion plan that gives them until April to return to their homelands or to a third country, or else face indefinite detention.

Protesters brandished signs of "many Israelis along with asylum seekers" and chanted other slogans such as "one does not expel a human being." A wall on a main Tel Aviv Boulevard was colorfully decorated with the sole phrase "we were all once refugees."

As many asylum seekers could face danger if returned to their home countries, Israel has offered to send the them with $3,500 to an unnamed third country, which migrants and aid workers say is Rwanda or Uganda.

The policy has been met with criticism from the United Nations refugee agency as well as strong public opposition in Israel over recent months in various incidents and demonstrations, as well as airline pilots saying they will not fly forced deportees.

Meanwhile a smaller counter-protest was taking place nearby and earlier Saturday, Israeli police  detained two men, one armed, after they allegedly made online threats to disrupt the rally in solidarity with African migrants facing expulsion.

Police reported that the men were "detained for questioning" after a Facebook post apparently calling for a violent counter-protest as opponents of a government crackdown on the migrants gathered in Tel Aviv.

"Friends it's happening... the battle to throw out the infiltrators," said the post, reproduced in a police statement. "It's time to riot and defend our home."

The term "infiltrators" is used by Israeli authorities and supporters of mass deportation to refer to the migrants, who began entering Israel illegally through what was then a porous border with Egypt in 2007.

A 27-year-old Eritrean aslyum-seeker, Mebrahatom, who came to Israel in August 2011, told i24NEWS  that "the people protesting against us in South Tel Aviv are racist, they don't like black people."

But a 24-year-old Sudanese asylum-seeker named Salamon who also arrived to Israel in 2011 said that "I don't believe people are racist, I think it is a lack of information and lack of education...if I could have the opportunity to talk with someone I could change their mind, its just pure ignorance."

Police were out in force and said they would not tolerate public disorder.

In 2012, an anti-migrant demonstration in Tel Aviv drew about 1,000 participants and spiraled into a race riot in which there were shouts of "Blacks out!" and attacks on African-run shops.

Saturday's solidarity event was initiated by Israeli residents of Neve Shaanan but organizers said they hoped that people would come from all over Israel to show support.

The interior ministry says there are currently about 42,000 African migrants in Israel, half of them children, women or men with families.

Single men have been given the choice of leaving Israel by early April or facing indefinite imprisonment.

Most are from Sudan or Eritrea and say they would be at risk if repatriated.

Acknowledging that some could face danger if returned home, Israel is proposing to send them to an unnamed third country, which migrants and aid workers say is Rwanda or Uganda.

Academics have published a petition and Israeli Holocaust survivors wrote an open letter to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu last month pleading with him to reconsider.

Religious and conservative leaders, including Netanyahu, have presented Muslim and Christian migrants as a threat to Israel's Jewish identity.

His government is considered the most rightwing in Israel's history.

On Wednesday, hundreds of asylum-seekers at a detention center in southern Israel launched an open-ended hunger strike after several of them were transferred to prison in the Negev desert for refusing to leave the Jewish state voluntarily.

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