The lynch mob attack on a young Eritrean asylum seeker in Israel during a deadly assault at a bus station has stoked fears that a climate in which Israeli citizens are encouraged to take the law into their own hands is growing.
Haftom Zarhum died in hospital after he, mistaken for an accomplice of an attacker that killed an Israeli soldier, was shot by a security guard and kicked by bystanders.
Rights groups on Monday called for Israeli authorities to bring those who murdered the 29-year-old Eritrean to justice.
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“The death of an asylum seeker at the hands of security guards and an angry mob is a tragic but foreseeable outgrowth of a climate in which some Israeli politicians encourage citizens to take the law into their own hands,” said Sari Bashi, Israel-Palestine country director at Human Rights Watch.
“The Israeli authorities should investigate and prosecute those responsible for the attack. Israel faces acute threats to public safety, but vigilantism will only lead to more innocent people being harmed or killed.”
Zarhum was a bystander on Sunday night at a bus station in the city of Beersheba when a Palestinian Israeli man, armed with a rifle and a knife, killed an Israeli soldier and wounded 10 others.
A security officer shot Zarhum and as he was bleeding on the ground, a mob brutally beat and critically injured him. The asylum seeker later died in hospital from the trauma.
The Palestinian Israeli attacker was killed on the scene.
Israeli police spokesman Micky Rosenfeld confirmed that Zarhum was “misidentified”.
“The man was hit by bystanders and individual civilians who were in the area. Police are looking into it now and have obtained the CCTV footage of the incident,” he told Al Jazeera.
At least one Israeli soldier was filmed kicking Zarhum in the head as he lay bleeding on the floor of the terminal.
Another man lifted a bench and dropped it on Zarhum’s head as others tried to protect him by placing a bar stool over his body.
Israeli police are investigating the killing of Zarhum.
Israel has seen a spate of knife and shooting attacks this month, as violence and protests against Israel’s occupation have increased in frequency across the West Bank, including East Jerusalem, and the Gaza Strip.
Forty-four Palestinians have been killed in the unrest, as well as eight Israelis.
‘Victim of racism’
Amnesty International Israel said it was “appalled and in mourning after learning of the murder.
“Zarhum was shot by an Israeli security officer, targeted simply because of the colour of his skin. He was a victim of racism and xenophobia who just happened to be at the scene of a terrorist attack. After being shot and wounded, Israeli civilians then set upon and attacked Zarhum, beating him to death.
“Amnesty demands that the Israeli police arrest those involved in the murder of Zarhum, and to bring them to justice.”
The rights group added that the murder was not an isolated case.
“It is a result of the government’s and Israeli authorities’ encouragement to execute people without trial.
“It is the responsibility of the Israeli government and security forces to stop and to prevent civilians from taking the law into their own hands, and to eradicate the security forces killing of suspects without a fair trial.”
Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat recently called on civilians who own firearms to carry them at all times in the wake of a spate of stabbing and shooting attacks.
Offering his condolences to Zarhum’s family, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu warned Israelis against vigilantism.
“We are a law-abiding country. No one must take the law into their own hands,” Netanyahu told officials from his Likud party.
Hotline for Refugees and Migrants in Israel, an organisation protecting the rights of refugees, migrants workers and victims of human trafficking, posted images on social media on Monday of a vigil held in Zarhum’s honour.
Mostly African asylum seekers held in Israel’s Holot detention centre gathered to mourn the victim.
African asylum seekers in Israel have long been the target of political incitement and discriminatory legislation.
In July, an Israeli court approved the deportation of refugees to countries such as Rwanda and Uganda, and gave a stamp of approval to the indefinite detention of asylum seekers who refuse deportation.
Israeli Culture Minister Miri Regev, a member of Netanyahu’s hardline Likud party, has in the past called African asylum seekers a “cancer in Israel’s body”.
Residences and schools servicing asylum seekers have also been targeted in attacks, including with firebombs, in recent years.