Israeli police in riot gear and on horseback struggled to disperse the crowds as rioters smashed store windows, grappled with officers and smashed vehicle windshields.
At least 16 protesters were seriously injured in the scuffle, according to Israeli media. A hospital said it was treating 11 gunshot victims. Police used rubber bullets and stun grenades to quell the violence, and authorities advised residents to avoid the central Tel Aviv area.
Eritrean asylum seekers living in the Israeli Hadar community in Haifa
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was briefed on the situation and ordered police to deploy the necessary forces to restore order, according to his office. By late afternoon, police said they had bused most of the protesters out of the area and said the scene was under control.
Most Eritreans were refugees and asylum seekers who have fled forced conscription and other forms of repression in the East African country ruled by Afwerki since gaining independence from the Ethiopia in 1993. Some Afwerki supporters were also reportedly at the scene, fighting with opponents of Afwerki’s party. government.
Police said anti-government protesters entered the public hall, smashed chairs and vandalized displays. Police were able to evacuate the area after the morning clashes, but protesters returned in significant numbers in the afternoon and the riot spread.
Similar clashes have erupted in recent Eritrean events in Canada, Germany, Sweden and elsewhere. Government critics have sought to use the celebrations to draw attention to human rights abuses committed by Afwerki.
In Toronto last month, protesters blocked the entrance to an Eritrean government event. And in Stockholm, police arrested more than 100 people during a fight outside a state-sponsored Eritrean cultural festival.
Activists slammed the events as propaganda for the government, which rights groups say operates as a “one-man dictatorship”.
Eritrea has “no legislature, no civil society organizations or independent media, and no independent judiciary,” New York-based Human Rights Watch wrote in its annual report this year. year.
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Last month, Eritrean Information Minister Yemane Gebremeskel called those who disrupt festivals “asylum scum”.
In Israel, Eritrean activists said they warned police there could be violence on Saturday and called for the event to be called off.
“We said there would be violence,” an Eritrean resident, who requested anonymity, told Israeli newspaper Ha’aretz. “They didn’t listen to us. »
About 18,000 Eritreans live in Israel, according to government figures. They are among tens of thousands of people who have fled Eritrea in recent years, escaping repression that includes forced labor and the possibility of lifelong military conscription.
Eritreans have typically fled to Israel via Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula, where they have often been snared by human trafficking rings and forced to pay ransoms for their release, rights groups say.
Israel built a fence along its border with Egypt in 2010, cutting off the flow of African refugees and asylum seekers, mainly from Eritrea and Sudan.
Once in Israel, Eritreans and other Africans have no way of asylum. Instead, the state classifies those who enter the country illegally as “infiltrators,” subjecting them to restrictions that limit where they can live and work. The Israeli government has also offered to pay African migrants to leave the country – on pain of prison if caught.
Berger reported from Washington.