The murder of an African bystander mistaken for an assailant has renewed harsh criticism of excessive force used by Israeli security forces against Africans and Palestinians.
The bystander, Haftom Zarhum, was shot by an Israeli guard and then kicked to death by a mob as he lay bleeding. He was part of the large Eritrean refugee community in Israel.
The brutal killing, described in some media reports as “a lynching”, comes amidst a rash of attacks that some link to the new checkpoints that keep many Palestinians from their jobs, and to new restrictions on men under 40 that bar them from praying at Al Aqsa Mosque and force them to pray behind police lines in the surrounding decrepit streets.
Zarhum, 29, worked at a cooperative agricultural community near the southern Gaza border. He had just stopped in the city of Beersheba to pick up his renewed work visa and was walking past the central bus station with a group of friends when an Israeli Bedouin armed with a gun and knife attacked a bus, killing an Israeli soldier and injuring 10 others.
In the confusion that followed, Zarhum was identified as a suspected accomplice, apparently based on his appearance. Several local media outlets headlined the story: “Just because of his skin color.”
Zarhum was shot and wounded before being shot several more times by a security guard at the bus station as he crawled along the floor. Still alive, he was then surrounded by people who cursed and spat at him, kicked him in the head and tried to hit him with a chair.
Human Rights Watch condemned the killing, calling it “a tragic but foreseeable outgrowth of a climate in which some Israeli politicians encourage citizens to take the law into their own hands.”
The plight of Eritrean refugees was underscored last June when hundreds of Eritreans rallied in Tel Aviv protesting abuse of asylum seekers. Eritreans need asylum from “systemic, widespread and gross human rights violations,” rally organizers said, “and a culture of fear under the government of President Isaias Afwerki.” A recent U.N. report described arbitrary detentions, the torture of dissenters, potentially indefinite and forced military conscription, alongside a sweeping mass surveillance system, forcing some 5,000 Eritreans out of the country each month. Eritrea’s government disputes the allegations.
“We are really sad and we cannot condemn anyone at this stage until we see the result of the investigation,” said Mutasim Ali, an asylum seeker from Sudan and head of the Tel Aviv-based African Refugee Development Center.
Monday morning, hundreds of African asylum seekers held a memorial to Zarhum at Holot prison, a desert detention facility where Israel holds nearly 600 Africans seeking refugee status in Israel.
Israeli officials have regularly referred to Eritreans and Sudanese migrants as “infiltrators” and as economic migrants, which aren’t eligible for asylum.