JERUSALEM - More than 10,000 African asylum seekers held a mass demonstration outside the Israeli parliament in Jerusalem on Wednesday, in a fourth straight day of protests over immigration policy, police said.
"We are refugees, we need protection," shouted the crowd, which packed the open spaces around the Knesset, or parliament. Police spokesman Micky Rosenfeld described the demonstration as "calm" saying there were "more than 10,000" people present.
Some held up posters reading "We need freedom! Stop racism!" while others waved signs saying "Respect human dignity," an AFP correspondent said.
One of the organisers, who gave his name only as Baso, told AFP that more than 100 coaches of people had been bussed to the rally from Tel Aviv with the aim of presenting MPs with a letter for the Israeli government.
"We, the asylum seekers, invite you and the Israeli government to enter a direct and open dialogue with us," said the letter, a copy of which was seen by AFP.
"Until now, you have ignored our calls. You call us infiltrators. You call us liars. We continue to tell you - we are refugees. Not criminals. Not infiltrators. We call you to sit with us to discuss possible solutions that will take into account both the interests of Israel and our needs and rights.
These solutions affect our lives and we want our voice to be heard," it said.
But parliamentary speaker Yuli Edelstein refused to allow four "infiltrator representatives" into the building to meet MPs for fear it would "cause a provocation which could descend into violence," a statement from his office said.
Speaking to the demonstrators, prize-winning Israeli author and activist David Grossman said he was "ashamed and perplexed" at their treatment, news website Ynet reported.
Tens of thousands of migrants, mostly Eritrean and Sudanese, have since Sunday been staging mass demonstrations in Tel Aviv against moves by the Israeli authorities to track them down and deport them, or throw them into detention facilities without trial.
'Recognise us as human beings'
In 2012, rising tensions over the growing number of illegal immigrants exploded into violence when a protest in south Tel Aviv turned ugly, with demonstrators smashing African shops and property, chanting "Blacks out!"
The rightwing government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has stepped up moves to expel them, saying they pose a threat to the state's Jewish character.
Israeli figures indicate there are some 52,000 Africans in the country illegally, mostly from Sudan and Eritrea, who managed to enter the country before the completion late last year of a hi-tech fence along the border with Egypt.
"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," Netanyahu told members of his Likud party Monday.
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.
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 organisers 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 recognise us as human beings."
He said that in the six years since he fled to Israel his asylum request had yet to be examined.
According to the website of Haaretz newspaper, Israel has not approved a single asylum request out of 1,800 applications filed by Eritrean and Sudanese asylum seekers.
It said only about 250 requests had been examined, of which 155 were turned down.
UNHCR, the UN refugee 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".