Surging street violence against African migrants, including a rampage that an Israeli broadcaster dubbed a "pogrom", drew empathy for the rioters from the interior minister on Thursday.
Waving Israeli flags and chanting "Deport the Sudanese", residents of a low-income Tel Aviv neighbourhood where many of the border-jumpers from Eritrea, Sudan and South Sudan live held a march late Wednesday that turned violent.
Police said 20 people were arrested for assault and vandalism. Trash cans were set alight, storefront windows were broken and a crowd attacked an African driving through the area, breaking his car's windows. No serious injuries were reported.
Interviewing Interior Minister Eli Yishai, Army Radio likened the incident to pogrom attacks on Jews in 19th century Europe. Yishai bristled at such language, citing police findings that Sudanese and Eritrean migrants were a crime risk.
"I cannot judge a man whose daughter gets raped. I cannot judge a young woman who cannot walk home," said Yishai, who heads a party run by rabbis in the coalition government.
"I cannot under any circumstances judge people who get abused and harmed, and who are then confronted by the state, which says, 'Why do you behave this way to the foreigners?'"
Fleeing poverty, fighting and authoritarian rule, some 60,000 Africans have crossed illegally into Israel through the relatively porous desert border with Egypt in recent years.
That has jarred the Jewish state, with its already ethnically fraught citizen population of 7.8 million. Some Israelis warn of a gathering demographic and economic crisis while others say a country born after the Holocaust has a special responsibility to offer foreigners sanctuary.
Tel Aviv Mayor Ron Huldai said some 15 percent of city residents were "illegal foreign workers" and the number was growing. Interior Ministry data show 82 percent of the African migrants are men, 15 percent women and the rest children.
Israel says most of the migrants come seeking work rather than refuge, but this has been challenged by U.N. humanitarian agencies and civil rights groups. As a result, the Africans are kept in a legal limbo, many of them granted temporary permits but no clear permanent status.
The government is erecting a fortified fence on the Egyptian border and wants to deport the migrants. But it has no ties with Sudan that would allow direct repatriation, and some humanitarian experts say it cannot force subjects of South Sudan and Eritrea back to those impoverished and ravaged states.
Eritrea's ambassador to Israel, Tesfamariam Tekeste, said in a television interview on Tuesday that Asmara would admit its citizens who return voluntarily - but not deportees.
An April 1 expulsion order issued by Yishai against illegal South Sudanese was blocked by a Jerusalem court as it considers an appeal by Israeli human rights activists.
Unchecked, the number of Africans illegally in Israel could reach millions and overwhelm the citizenry, Yishai predicted.
"So what, the State of Israel, as the Jewish state, in the name of democracy, in the name of honouring U.N. resolutions, (should accept) a recipe for suicide?" he said.
"The truth has to be told, and believe me it is hard and it hurts, as we are the Jewish people, a merciful people."
David Gez, a senior Israeli police officer, said Wednesday's violence was one of several such anti-African incidents this month in Tel Aviv.
Oscar Olivier, a Congolese migrant, said on Army Radio that he has been in Israel for 18 years seeking refugee status and that the public mood reminded him of the assassination in 1995 of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin by an ultranationalist Jew.
"I feel like we're facing a former alcoholic who has started drinking again," he said in fluent Hebrew. "The question is not if they will kill an African because he is black, but when."
Olivier acknowledged the migrants posed problems for Israel but said: "There are professional, reliable, serious, and independent laws and judges. Let them decide what to do and how to do it - just without violence."
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