Beating death of Eritrean underscores Israel’s tensions

A beaten Habtom Zerhom is carried from the bus station in Beersheba, Israel, on Sunday. Security camera footage showed him being shot by an Israeli security guard as he crawled on the ground, then kicked by bystanders as he lay in a pool of blood.
A beaten Habtom Zerhom is carried from the bus station in Beersheba, Israel, on Sunday. Security camera footage showed him being shot by an Israeli security guard as he crawled on the ground, then kicked by bystanders as he lay in a pool of blood. AP

The accidental shooting and mob beating this week of an Eritrean national during a terrorist attack has revealed a level of panic and racial tension in an Israel beset by a wave of renewed Israeli-Palestinian violence that claimed four more lives Tuesday.

Israeli police said they’ve opened an investigation into the death of Habtom Zerhom, 29, who was mistaken for a terrorist an attack that killed an Israeli soldier. He was shot by a bus station guard, then beaten by a mob. He died Monday.

Video footage shows one person hurling a bench at Zerhom, and another kicking his bloodied body.

Israeli media referred to Zerhom’s death as a lynching. Meir Saka, a bus driver who stood over Zerhom’s body with a barstool, wept as he recalled the night on Israeli Channel 10 TV news.

“I was guarding over him with a chair to make sure he wouldn’t move . . . and then I heard gunshots and I realized he wasn’t even a terrorist,” Saka said. “There was this atmosphere; everyone who came in, it didn’t matter who was there, boom, kicked him.”

The violence continued Tuesday. The Israeli army said forces killed a Palestinian sniper firing from Gaza toward Israel. Another Palestinian was shot when he rammed his car into a group of Israelis waiting at a bus stop on the outskirts of Jerusalem in the West Bank, according to the military spokesman.

Also Tuesday, a Palestinian truck driver killed Israeli Avraham Chasno, 50, who exited his car after being pelted by stones near the West Bank refugee camp of al Fawar. The driver turned himself in and claimed it was an accident. In the morning, Israeli forces killed Palestinian Oday Hashem al Masalmeh, 24, after he stabbed an Israeli near Negohot settlement in the southern West Bank.

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon visited Jerusalem in an effort to quell the violence that has killed nine Israelis since early October. Israeli forces have killed at least 45 Palestinians in the same period, including at least 20 suspected assailants.

Zerhom’s death continued to draw attention. Police spokesman Micky Rosenfeld said Zerhom, 29, was in the central bus station of Beersheba when a Bedouin citizen of Israel, Mohannad al Okbi, 19, entered the complex and fatally shot Sgt. Omri Levi, 19. Al Okbi then seized Levi’s rifle and opened fire. Police units stationed outside the station rushed in and shot al Okbi.

As Zerhom fled the scene, a bus station security guard mistook him for a second assailant and shot him, Rosenfeld said. A mob then gathered and began beating Zerhom as he lay bleeding on the bus station floor.

About 34,000 Eritreans live in Israel. They crossed Israel’s border with Egypt’s Sinai over the last decade, fleeing persecution and lifetime military conscription. The Eritrean Embassy in Israel will attempt to repatriate Zerhom’s body, said Ambassador Tesfamariam Tekeste.

Israeli farmer Sagi Malachi said Zerhom worked in his greenhouse in the rural southern community Ein Habesor. Malachi said Zerhom went to Beersheba to renew his visa. Zerhom was “a modest boy, quiet, and all in all tried to do his best work. For us in the family it’s a difficult day,” Malachi told Israeli Ynet News.

Dawit Demoz, an Eritrean who arrived in Israel in 2009 and works for the migrant aid organization Kav Leoved, said the attack terrified him.

“If I was there at that moment, there is no difference between us,” Demoz said. “This guy was shot because of his skin color. Can you imagine if he was white, would he be shot?”

Demoz blamed Israeli leaders for fomenting resentment of Eritreans in Israel. Although Israel affords Eritreans protection, only a few dozen have received refugee status that would allow them to work and live freely in Israel.

Foreign Ministry spokesman Emmanuel Nachshon said Israel apologized to the Eritrean government for the death and pledged to share results of the police investigation. Demoz questioned why Israel would apologize to the very Eritrean government that had forced its citizens to flee.

Beyond raising the plight of asylum seekers in Israel, the attack Sunday exposed fault lines among Arab citizens of Israel. Arabs comprise a fifth of Israel’s population, and have extensive family ties with Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza. Ayman Odeh, chairman of the Joint List of Arab parliamentarians, condemned the attack.

“This is not the way of the Arab population,” Odeh said. “The Arab population salutes the just struggle of the Palestinian people but its struggle takes place through legitimate civil action.”

Members of the hardline Balad faction in his party refused to support the declaration, said a party spokeswoman.

Al Okbi was the second Arab citizens to attack Israelis in recent weeks. The incidents have driven a rift between Jews and Arabs in Israel. On Sunday, four Israeli cities including Tel Aviv temporarily banned Arab laborers from schools, citing security.

Cheslow is a McClatchy special correspondent.