African migrants protest outside Israel's parliament
Published Wednesday 08/01/2014 (updated) 09/01/2014 17:24
African asylum seekers who entered Israel illegally via Egypt gather
during a protest in front of the Knesset in Jerusalem, on Jan. 8, 2014
(AFP Menahem Kahana)
JERUSALEM (AFP) -- More than 10,000 African asylum seekers rallied outside Israel's parliament in Jerusalem Wednesday, police said, in a fourth straight day of protests against immigration policy.
The demonstration was "calm," police spokesman Micky Rosenfeld told AFP, adding that police were deployed to keep order. He put the number of protesters at "more than 10,000."
"We are refugees; we need protection," the demonstrators chanted.
Addressing the protesters, prizewinning Israeli author and activist David Grossman said he was "ashamed and perplexed" at their treatment by his country, the Israeli news website Ynet reported.
An organizer of the rally, who gave his name only as Baso, said more than 100 busloads of protesters had headed in the morning from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.
"We have a letter addressed to the government of Israel, but we will hand it to the Knesset," he told AFP.
But parliament speaker Yuli Edelstein banned a delegation of demonstration leaders, who were invited to a meeting with MPs, from entering the Knesset building.
Edelstein wanted to "avoid provocation that could degenerate into violence," his office said.
Tens of thousands of migrants, mostly Eritrean and Sudanese, have demonstrated each day since Sunday in Tel Aviv, including outside offices of the UN refugee agency (UNHCR) and foreign embassies.
Israel's commercial capital was the scene of race riots in 2012, and the right-wing government has vowed to step up the repatriation of illegal immigrants, saying they pose a threat to the state's Jewish character.
Some 52,000 were already in Israel, after managing to slip across the desert border with Egypt, before Israel completed a high-tech barrier last year.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has said the protests will make no difference to his government's tough stand on asylum seekers.
"Just as we've succeeded in blocking off illegal infiltrations thanks to the security fence, we're determined to send back those who made it in before the border was closed," he told members of his Likud party Monday.
In an open letter to Netanyahu published Wednesday, the migrant leaders invited him and his government "to enter a direct and open dialogue with us."
"We are not criminals," it said. "We are a law-abiding, orderly and democratic community of asylum seekers."
Under legislation passed last month, authorities can detain illegal immigrants entering Israel for up to a year without trial.
The government has opened the sprawling Holot detention facility in the Negev desert to house both new entrants and immigrants already in the country deemed to have disturbed public order.
Israel Prisons Service spokeswoman Sivan Weizman told AFP 119 migrants held in the nearby Saharonim prison, opened in 2007, were refusing meals in protest for a third day Wednesday.
Protest organizers did not say if the hunger strike was to continue on Thursday, but said they would continue to press their demands.
Among them, Eritrean Habton Mahari told Channel One TV, the government should "stop arresting asylum seekers on the streets, that the government revoke the racist law; thirdly that all the refugees arrested on the streets be released and, most importantly, that they recognize us as human beings."
He said that in the six years since he fled to Israel his asylum request had yet to be examined by the authorities.
The UN refugees agency has condemned Israel for ignoring the reasons asylum seekers have fled their countries of origin and for failing to provide "those with protection needs" with "access to refugee status determination."