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Israel faces criticism from US over attitudes to African migrants

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Israel is facing rare criticism from the US State Department and some American Jewish organisations over the backlash against African asylum-seekers which peaked when a demonstration by residents in Tel Aviv turned violent this week.

In a global report on human rights in 2011 – which extends criticisms to a wide range of countries – the State Department highlighted the frequent use by Israeli officials of the term "infiltrators" to describe asylum-seekers.

And it pointed out in the report released on Thursday that in response to 4,603 new asylum applications last year the government had rejected 3,692 and approved just one. Seventeen people were arrested during an anti-migrant demonstration of around 1,000 on Wednesday night, shops were looted and a car containing Africans was attacked. Earlier Miri Regev, a parliamentarian in the ruling Likud party, had told the protesters that "the Sudanese are a cancer in our body".

The term "infiltrators" was again used earlier in the week by the Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu when he warned of migrants "inundating" the country; he said they were threatening the nation's existence as a Jewish and democratic state. Mr Netanyahu has since said there was "no room" for the "kinds of expressions and actions" on display at Wednesday's protest, adding: "I say this both to public officials and to the residents of south Tel Aviv, whose pain I understand." He again repeated that "the problem of the infiltrators must be solved and we will solve it".

Written long before the events of this week, the State Department report noted deeply negative comments about the mainly South Sudanese and Eritrean refugees made by the Interior Minister, Eli Yishai, who more recently has called for all African migrants to be jailed pending deportation.

Earlier this week, Yohanan Danino, the Israeli police chief, said that a bar on migrants working should be lifted to prevent petty crime and the mounting social problems they face.

But Mr Yishai responded by declaring: "Why should we provide them with jobs? I'm sick of the bleeding hearts, including politicians. Jobs would settle them here, they'll make babies and that offer will only result in hundreds of thousands more coming over here."

Mr Yishai has implied the large majority of the asylum-seekers are criminals. While a highly publicised spate of rapes in Tel Aviv have fuelled tensions, police said last week that only one had been linked to African migrants.