African immigrants drive a car with windows shattered by Israeli protesters in Tel Aviv Wednesday.

Story highlights

Protesters smashed windows and attacked foreign workers during the protest

Netanyahu condemned the attacks and said he'd fight illegal immigration "responsibly"

Knesset speaker blasts members who took part in the demonstration

Jerusalem CNN  — 

A racially charged demonstration against the Israeli government’s handling of immigration from Africa turned violent Wednesday night as protesters attacked foreign workers, shattered car windows and vandalized a shop owned by a Sudanese migrant.

Police spokesman Micky Rosenfeld said 17 men were arrested in the event and brought to a Tel Aviv court Thursday morning. They are charged with attacking residents and Israeli police and damaging property.

The demonstrators carried signs with the slogans “Infiltrators get out of our houses” and “Tel Aviv – a refugee camp.” They were accompanied by three members of the Knesset, Israel’s parliament.

Miri Regev, a Knesset member from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud party, referred to illegal immigrants as “a cancer in our society” and promised to do anything possible to send them back to their home countries.

But Netanyahu denounced the attacks in a special statement Thursday.

“The problem of infiltrators must be resolved, and we will resolve it,” he said. “We will complete the construction of the security fence in several months and soon will start the process of sending the migrants back to their home countries.

“Yet, I would like to stress that the expressions and acts that we have viewed last night are unacceptable,” he continued. “We will solve the problem and will do so responsibly.”

And Knesset speaker Reuven Rivlin criticized the members who took part in the march, saying politicians must help restrain public anger and come up with solutions rather than fan racially-charged flames.

“We must not be dragged into incitement and the language used by anti-Semites against Jewish people,” Rivlin said.

The migrants and security problems in the Sinai Peninsula has prompted Israel to step up construction of a steel fence that will run the 260-kilometer (162-mile) border with Egypt.

An estimated 60,000 Africans have crossed illegally into Israel thorough its southern border with Egypt in recent years – about 700 a week, according to Israeli police. Tensions between local residents of Tel Aviv’s working class neighborhoods and illegal African immigrants have seen new highs this month following a couple of highly publicized cases in which Sudanese migrants were arrested on charges of sexual assault against young Israeli women.

Sigal Rosen, a spokeswoman for a hotline for migrant workers, says she can’t understand the demonstrators’ actions – “but I certainly understand their hysteria.”

“Objectively, they are right,” Rosen said. “The load on the infrastructures is intolerable, and the city does nothing to improve their condition.”

But Rosen blames a government that refuses to legalize their status and allow them to work freely across the country.

“The only way to prevent these immigrants from coming here is by physically shooting at them as they cross the border, as is done by the Egyptians,” she said. “It is clear to me that Israel would not do such a thing and therefore nothing would prevent them from continuing to arrive. Even imprisonment is better than what they experience in their home country.”