Who’s afraid of the African asylum seekers of South Tel Aviv?

As a general rule in Tel Aviv, if your taxi driver is still gabbing about a national news event — more often than not, with a conservative slant — you can bet the topic is also trending citywide.

And of five taxi drivers this reporter has flagged down over the past week, four have complained about the ongoing nuisance that is the African migrant population of South Tel Aviv.

In a way, this enduring buzz is a sign of success for Israel’s 55,000 Eritrean and Sudanese asylum seekers and the nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) that back them. The majority of the African asylum seekers are Christians and Muslims who fled to Israel by way of Egypt and the Sinai Desert over the last eight years, clustering mainly in South Tel Aviv. Their historic six-day strike, which lasted through Jan. 10 and allowed for daytime protests with turnouts over 20,000, may be finished for now, but the Africans’ fight to be recognized as refugees can still be felt throughout the city — most recently through a cultural appreciation event on Jan. 19.

On that Sunday, more than 50 restaurants and bars across Tel Aviv and neighboring Jaffa served traditional Eritrean and Sudanese dishes in place of their usual fare. Some also used the opportunity to throw a goodbye party for the African members of their kitchen staffs who have been summoned to the Holot detention facility in the Negev, Israel’s newest desert prison for illegal migrants.

At Ha’Tarnegol (“The Rooster”), an art cafe in Jaffa, well-known Darfuri chef Hassan Shakur — set to be imprisoned at Holot — whipped up platters of traditional porridge and sauces for a roomful of supporters.

The restaurant’s co-owner, Roee Avraham, said of Shakur: “For us, it’s a great honor to host him here, to learn from him and to help him as much as we can.”

Adil Adam, 28, another Sudanese volunteer lending a hand in the kitchen, said that, like Shakur, he must report to Holot by mid-February. Adam explained that he originally fled Darfur because he belonged to a group of activists at his university who opposed the government. Although some of his colleagues were murdered, Adam managed to escape. “What I expected to find in Israel was at least education,” he said. Instead, after three years working as a day laborer, he’s bracing himself for an indefinite term at Holot.

The night’s feel-good activities culminated at Levontin 7, a well-known hipster bar situated on the border of central and southern Tel Aviv. Three bands with members from various African countries took the stage — and the venue reached capacity within 15 minutes.

But the events seemed to attract a like-minded bunch. Members of local media outlets — the majority of which now openly side with the asylum seekers — squeezed into Ha’Tarnegol alongside NGO workers and other familiar faces from the protests. (“I think I will make a lot of friends tonight!” Adam said.) At one point, the kitchen was filled with more news cameras — from outlets like i24 News and the Jerusalem Post — than African cooks. 

International media coverage has, likewise, taken a cleanly pro-refugee approach. The New Yorker magazine, for instance, ran a lengthy piece after the Africans’ weeklong strike that argued strongly against Israeli policies.

These sympathies, though, are a world apart from the fear and resentment that still lingers in the more religious nooks of South Tel Aviv and in the hearts of conservatives across the city.

“The Israeli media will not mention this demonstration,” said Itai Sen, a resident of Tel Aviv’s tech suburb Ramat Gan, at a recent counter-protest to the African rallies. (And for the most part, he was correct.)

One handmade sign at the midcity protest read, in Hebrew: “Approximately every seven minutes, an Israeli is assaulted by an African!!!”

Although this demonstration was maybe one-fifth the size and intensity of the South Tel Aviv race riots of May 2012, it put a few hundred faces to anti-African sentiment that still smolders — mostly behind closed doors — and has largely driven government action.

“As a woman, I will tell you: I will never set foot in South Tel Aviv,” said Lizi Hameiri, a petite young brunette from North Tel Aviv who stopped by the protest. She said she had heard from a friend that “this week, [African migrants] raped a woman, and after they raped her, they smashed in her teeth.”

Another Israeli man who runs a fresh-juice bar along Menachem Begin Street — marking the upper border of South Tel Aviv — described an incident “about three or four months ago” in which he stabbed two African asylum seekers trying to rape a woman in an alley behind his house (located next to the juice bar). The man said he didn’t want his name published for fear that Tel Aviv cops would punish him for implying they weren’t doing their jobs. The tip of his thumb had apparently been sliced off — an injury he said he sustained in the stabbing.

A spokesman for the Israel Police said he had no “specific data” on African crime rates in the area. However, the Hotline for Refugees and Migrants reported that police data from 2010 and 2011, presented at a government meeting, showed crime rates among Israelis to be more than double those of foreigners. 

Nevertheless, mistrust of the asylum seekers runs deep, and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s administration has aligned itself with those advocating expulsion.

Rather than arrest individual African asylum seekers who have committed street crimes and try them in court, the government is sending them to Holot en masse for the crime of infiltrating Israel’s border fence. (At press time, the Administration of Border Crossings, Population and Immigration had not responded to repeated requests for the number of migrants summoned to Holot. However, local NGOs are estimating that between 500 and 1,000 Africans have been summoned.)

In a Facebook statement on Jan. 5, Netanyahu made his end goal clear. “We completely stopped the infiltration into Israel,” he wrote of the country’s new fence with Egypt, “and now we are determined to send away the illegal migrant workers who [already] entered Israel.”

Danny, 46, an Indian-Israeli tile vendor who works a couple blocks from the Central Bus Station — and who did not wish to give his last name for fear of retribution — agreed with this approach. “The government has to worry about its own people first,” he said. 

Another Jewish woman working at a furniture store nearby, who would not give her first or last name, said that although she has never been robbed by an African in the neighborhood, “People are afraid to come to my business. And sometimes in the night, I am afraid, too.” She recommended that instead of sending African migrants to prison, the government should just “put them back in their own country.”

Israel has refrained from sending any Eritrean or Sudanese asylum seekers home against their will, in accordance with United Nations “non-refoulement” guidelines. But because Israeli officials have either denied or have yet to approve all requests for asylum filed by Eritrean and Sudanese nationals, the foreigners are stuck in limbo.

Mutasim Ali, 27, a Darfuri leader of the current refugee rights movement, said that his NGO, the African Refugee Development Center, has been distributing asylum request forms within the community — but that they’re not even sure where to turn them in.

Anyway, he said, “I’m not optimistic” that they’ll make any difference.

Due to the confusion surrounding the process, and its low success rate so far, the majority of Tel Aviv’s asylum seekers have not filled out the forms. Instead, they’re spending hours in long lines outside the Ministry of Interior, trying to renew their visas.

When they do finally reach the window, though, many are instead being handed mandatory invitations to report to Holot within 30 days.

One of the hundreds summoned to prison so far is Muhamad Musa, a 35-year-old asylum seeker from Darfur who came to Israel six years ago and now owns a watch and jewelry shop in the city’s half-abandoned Central Bus Station. On a recent Monday, Musa helped a steady stream of customers pick out pieces that suited them — including a young Israel Defense Forces (IDF) soldier in a kippah and an elderly Jewish woman, both of whom greeted him by name. 

“Everybody knows me here,” said Musa — including Tel Aviv police, who he said would know where to find him if he didn’t show up to Holot on Feb. 5.

A friend of Musa, who called himself only Khalifa, also stopped by the watch shop on Monday. Khalifa keeps his Holot letter inside a plastic sleeve tucked in his jacket pocket but pulled it out to show a visiting journalist. The form — printed in Hebrew, Arabic and the Eritrean language of Tigrinya — stated that Khalifa also had the option of accepting $3,500 to return to Darfur. 

But Musa and Khalifa both said they would rather do anything than return to Darfur, where they fear the worst.

Ali, head of the African Refugee Development Center, also has been summoned to Holot. “I’m not thinking about it yet, because I still have one long month,” Ali said over the phone, his normally calm voice on edge. “Right now, I’m thinking about those who go before me, in the next few days. We have a lot of work to do.”

As the countdown to Holot begins, Israeli authorities have shown no sign of slowing their plan to rid Tel Aviv of its African residents.

For some in the community, that’s a shame. “I live with them here, and I don’t think they’re dangerous,” Israeli real-estate agent Meir Landis said of the asylum seekers. After the strike, he said, “Now people understand — and the business owners know — how much we need them.”

A Jewish-Ethiopian liquor-store owner working across from the Central Bus Station, who has lived in Israel for almost 30 years — and who wished to remain anonymous, due to racial tension in the area — argued that racism is fueling government policies on Eritrean and Sudanese asylum seekers.

“There is crime here [in South Tel Aviv], but no different than the rest of Israel,” he said. “I think many people are scared of them just because they’re black. If they were French, we wouldn’t be having this conversation.”

‘You’ll be free. Welcome!’: Seeking asylum

Daniel Angosom was just 18 when he escaped a lifetime of compulsory army service in Eritrea, fleeing to Sudan through his country’s northern border. It was in Sudan, while working as a cattle herder, that Angosom — like thousands of African asylum seekers before him — was kidnapped and sold to Bedouin gangs in the Sinai desert.

“They covered my eyes with a cloth and burned my head and neck with metal rods,” Angosom, now a lanky 21-year-old with a shadow of a mustache, remembered of his time as a Bedouin captive.

After months of torture and near-starvation, his family back in Eritrea was able to scrape together $35,000 for his ransom: “My mother sold her gold, and we sold all our cattle,” he said. So his captors dumped him at the Israeli border fence, where he expected to be taken in as a refugee. (About three-quarters of Eritreans and Sudanese who apply for asylum in countries that signed the United Nations’ 1951 Refugee Convention, like Israel, are approved.)

Instead, Angosom was jailed for entering the country illegally. He is now being held at the Holot detention facility, the newest jail within Israel’s expanding desert prison compound for “illegal infiltrators.” He spoke to the Journal while sitting at a freshly painted red picnic bench just outside prison grounds; the desert stretched for miles in every direction, cold and silent.

“When I first entered inside Israel, I was very happy because it’s a democratic country,” said Filmon Mengstab, 27, Angosom’s closest friend at Holot. Long, spindly scars mark his arms and legs where bandits branded him with red-hot iron and extinguished their cigarettes into his flesh. Mengstab said his Bedouin captors also forced him to have sex with other prisoners and raped Eritrean women in front of him.

When he got to Israel, Mengstab said, “The army told me, ‘You will be free. Welcome.’ ”

Yet, Mengstab and Angosom have been behind bars in Israel’s desolate south for over a year now, alongside thousands of their peers. First, they were held at Saharonim, a closed jail with a capacity of about 3,000 prisoners, including women and children. But under a new Israeli law passed in December, male prisoners are now transferred to Holot after a year of good behavior at Saharonim — and can be held there indefinitely.

The Israel Prison Service has labeled Holot an “open facility” because prisoners can walk freely in- and outside the barbed prison fence. They can’t go far, though, because they must check in with guards three times per day.

“I don’t do anything — I just eat and sleep,” said Haspel Karim Youssef, 22, of Darfur. He’s been in prison for 15 months. “Every day, every hour, the same.”

Migrants living in Tel Aviv can also be sent to the prison complex, without trial, after any run-in with the cops. Micky Rosenfeld, foreign press spokesman for the Israel Police, said that if, during questioning, police find out that an African migrant has no residency papers or refugee status, he will be arrested and “transferred down south to Holot.”

Darfuri theater troupe actor and barbershop worker Babi Ibrahim, for example, was reportedly arrested in July when he couldn’t provide a receipt for a bicycle parked outside his shop. And according to the Hotline for Refugees and Migrants, another woman was detained when she reported being raped.

Since December, some 500 to 1,000 asylum seekers living in Israel have been summoned to Holot while trying to reapply for visas, a spokeswoman for the Hotline said. (The Administration of Border Crossings, Population and Immigration did not respond to multiple requests for confirmation of this statistic.)

“Israeli authorities have detained and invited our husbands, fathers and sons to go to Holot,” Sudanese activist Sumaya Nedey said at a recent protest. “They put us in detention in order to break our minds.”

Afraid of running into immigration police, she said, “We fear to go to work and meet with friends. Fear has taken the streets of Tel Aviv.”

The majority of African asylum seekers in Israel come from Eritrea. “Eritrea is known as the North Korea of Africa,” Sweden-based Eritrean activist and journalist Meron Estefanos said. “Every kid knows that you are the property of the state. By the time you’re 17, you know you’re going to go to the military camp … and you will be stuck doing national service for the rest of your life. The only way to get out is by leaving the country.” Temesghen Haile, 34, another prisoner at Holot, confirmed this, saying he served more than 10 years as a guard along the Ethiopian border before escaping Eritrea. Haile was under orders to shoot any Ethiopian on sight.

After helping a group of Eritrean captives round up ransom money to pay their Bedouin kidnappers in 2011, Estefanos became the go-to contact for desperate victims and their families; to this day, she fields innumerable panicked phone calls.

“The torture gets worse and worse and worse,” she said. “[The captors] sit all day and night trying to think what’s the worst thing they could do. They’re sadistic.”

Eritrean asylum seekers in captivity have phoned Estefanos with stories of being chained together in a puddle of cold water, then electrocuted until they pass out. “They will rape you to make you feel ashamed, and force you to rape each other,” she said. “They will call your parents and make them listen while they are burning you. They will hang you and make everyone eat for three or four days with your dead body hanging next to them.”

Estefanos added that if escapees are sent back to Eritrea, they are sure to be imprisoned for life. So even though Israeli authorities have offered $3,500 to any African who returns to his country voluntarily, prisoners at Holot said they would rather remain, holding out hope that Israel will change its mind or the U.N. will intervene.

Now, Estefanos is also taking calls from Eritreans stuck at Israel’s Holot and Saharonim detention centers.

“In Eritrea, it’s a dictatorship, so it’s expected. There’s no way out,” Estefanos said. But, in Israel, “You have convinced yourself that you’re in a democratic country where you have rights. Not knowing [your fate] is what’s worst.”

Canada puts Israel on list of democracies ‘unlikely’ to generate refugees

Canada placed Israel on a list of “safe” countries whose citizens are unlikely to seek asylum as refugees.

Israel and seven other countries joined a list of 27 “Designated Countries of Origin” already on the list.

The 35 nations now on the list include the United States and most members of the European Union, according to a statement published on Feb. 14 by the Citizenship and Immigration Canada.

The ability of citizens from countries on the list to appeal decisions of the quasi-judicial Immigration and Refugee Board of Canada (IRB) will be limited.

Countries eligible for the list are “democratic countries that offer state protection, have active human rights and civil society organizations and do not normally produce refugees,” Citizenship and Immigration Canada said in the statement.

“Most Canadians recognize that there are places in the world where it is less likely for a person to be persecuted compared to other areas,” it said. “Yet many people from these places try to claim asylum in Canada, but are later found not to need protection. Too much time and too many resources are spent reviewing these unfounded claims.”

Israel's addition to the list excludes Gaza and the West Bank.

The other countries added on Thursday were Mexico, Japan, Norway, Iceland, New Zealand, Australia and Switzlerland.

Amnesty International and the Canadian Council for Refugees criticized the list for limiting the ability of citizens from countries on the list to appeal IRB judgments, saying this was a violation of the U.N. Refugee Convention, Postmedia News reported.

The move comes as Stephen Harper's Conservative government has been establishing stronger ties with the Jewish State.

In the fall, Canada closed its embassy in Iran and expelled Iranian diplomats from the country, supported Israel in the latest Gaza Strip war and opposed the Palestinian statehood bid at the UN.

Immigration Minister Jason Kenney is a staunch supporter of Israel and widely seen as a potential successor to Harper as leader of the Conservative Party.

NGO: Eritrean asylum seekers pressured to leave Israel

Israel attempted to deport 25 Eritrean asylum seekers in violation of international conventions, according to an Israeli NGO supporting the rights of migrants.

A group of some 25 Eritrean refugees were pressured by Israeli immigration officials to sign a declaration saying they would agree to be deported to Uganda and then discovered that they were scheduled to fly to Eritrea, the Hotline for Migrant Workers charged. The Eritreans refused to get on the plane.

A spokeswoman for the Population, Immigration, and Borders Authority, Sabine Haddad, told JTA that she did not know about a group of Eritreans facing possible return, but did say that hundreds of north Sudanese have agreed to be repatriated in recent months, as well as a small number of Eritreans.

Haddad added that her office is checking this particular incident, and said that in no case does Israel deport migrants against their will.

The Hotline for Migrant Workers told Haaretz that the asylum seekers were told they either can be repatriated to Eritrea or remain in prison in Israel for at least three years.

As a signatory of the United Nations Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, Israel cannot deport asylum seekers. Israel grants Eritreans protection, but does not recognize them as refugees.

Eritreans make up more than 60 percent of the more than 60,000 illegal African migrants are who are believed to be in Israel, according to Haaretz.

Asylum seekers who return to Eritrea are in danger of persecution or even death at the hands of the Eritrean regime, rights groups say.

Iranian scientist requests asylum in Israel

An Iranian nuclear scientist has requested political asylum in Israel, an Israeli lawmaker said.

Ayoub Kara, a Druze minister of the Likud Party, said Saturday that an Iranian academic with ties to Iran’s nuclear program passed the request for asylum via an Israeli woman of Iranian descent, according to reports.

The scientist is waiting for Israel’s decision from a “friendly” third country, according to Kara, who did not name the scientist or the country in which he is hiding.

The Washington Post reported Sunday that an increasing number of Iranian nuclear scientists are defecting or leaking information about Iran’s nuclear program to Western nations.

The wrong Zionist response to refugees

It’s hard to escape the impression that the Olmert government is being humane to the refugees from Sudan’s Darfur region for appearance’s sake only. I say this because the government is being amazingly cruel to the refugees from southern Sudan, who are far more numerous than the Darfurians, and who escaped a genocide that took many, many more lives than the one going on in Darfur.

The genocide in Darfur is just better known. The genocide in Darfur has also been taken up as a cause by American Jewish organizations. If Israel expelled the few hundred refugees here from Darfur, it would be a public relations catastrophe. But if Israel expels the 1,000 or so refugees here from southern Sudan, who cares?

Like the Darfurians, the refugees from southern Sudan saw their villages burned and their families slaughtered by Arab terrorosts. Like the Darfurians, they escaped north to Egypt, where they endured years of anti-black racism, brutality and feudal exploitation before crossing Sinai and straggling over the border into Israel.

Some don’t make it; they get shot to death by Egyptian soldiers in Sinai or, if they give themselves up, get beaten viciously.

The refugees began arriving here in 2004 and, until now, the government has refrained from sending them back to Egypt because Egypt didn’t want them, and because Egypt might deport them back to Sudan, where they faced death at the hands of the government or its genocidal marauders.

But now everything’s changed. Prime Minister Ehud Olmert says Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak has agreed to take back the Sudanese refugees and pledged not to deport them back home. So the Israeli government is going to take Mubarak up on his offer.

“For the first few days, the Egyptians will give us a big welcome, and then, when no one’s paying attention anymore, the security forces will do whatever they want to us and no one will know. We’ll either be killed or put in jail for the rest of our lives,” says “George,” a young southern Sudanese survivor who spent nearly a year in Israeli prisons before being allowed to work in the Eilat hotels.

There are hundreds of Sudanese refugees working there with him, all technically under house arrest.

“Everybody is really worried,” he says.

Egypt treats black Africans like garbage, like slaves, and shoots them when they try to escape. Now Egypt is considered by Israel a fit destination for these black Africans, all of whom have been through a holocaust of their own.

I’m waiting for the Israel lobby in the United States to tell Olmert he can’t do this. I’m also waiting for the pro-Israel evangelical Christian organizations to pressure Olmert to change his mind. Of the nearly 1,200 Sudanese refugees here, about 700 are Christians, according to Sigal Rozen, head of Hotline for Migrant Workers, the main Israeli NGO helping these people.

All, or virtually all, of the 700 Christians — “George” being one of them — are from southern Sudan, not Darfur, so they’re on the list of deportees. Israel, which gets the most extraordinary support from the multiracial world of evangelical Christianity, is now going to send 700 Christians back to a Muslim country that persecuted them because they’re black, and that might even send them back to another Muslim country that committed genocide against them because they’re black and Christian.

There’s no debate that something has to be done to stop the increasing flow of refugees, Sudanese and others, crossing the border into Israel. We obviously can’t have an “open door” policy — there are millions of Sudanese refugees living miserably in Egypt.

But the question is: Can we afford to take in more than the estimated 200-400 who originate in Darfur, and I think the answer is yes. I think we can afford to take in at least a few-thousand Sudanese refugees – southerners and Darfurians, Christians and Muslims. The Israeli hotel operators in Eilat say they’re the finest people, hard-working and extremely eager to improve their education, which was stunted by the genocide(s) in their homeland. These people risked their lives to come to this country, they’re grateful as can be to Israel for taking them in, and in the Israeli-Arab conflict, they’re about as pro-Israel (and anti-Arab) as anyone anywhere.

But I know I’m in a very small minority on this issue. Israelis think this country should only be for Jews, that Israel should worry about Jewish refugees only, except for maybe a few Vietnamese boat people and Darfurians. Otherwise, the overwhelming consensus is that there are too many non-Jews in this country already, the demographic bogeyman is going to get us, and besides, these Sudanese will never be more than the wretched of the Israeli earth, they’ll never be accepted, they’re better off somewhere else.

This is a distortion of Zionism, this is turning the ideology of a Jewish state into the ideology of a Jewish separatist state. The Law of Return says any Jew can become an Israeli citizen, but Israelis think it also says that no non-Jew can become an Israeli citizen, and the Law of Return says no such thing. If the Sudanese could never hope to be accepted in Israel, never allowed to become more than menial laborers on the furthest margins of society, whose fault is that — theirs or ours? Instead of “protecting” them from our xenophobia, why don’t we just become less xenophobic?

If Israel goes ahead and sends 1,000 southern Sudanese refugees back to live under the Pharaoh, after what they went through in Sudan, then once and for all we Jews ought to get off our high horse about how “the world stood silent” when we needed help.

A Troubled Exodus

With two miles of bare footprints behind them, Ahmed and Fatima and their three children approached the border with Israel in the middle of a cold winter night. Snow was falling in the Sinai.

Avoid the Egyptian military patrols, they were warned by their Bedouin smugglers, whom they paid with money borrowed from Sudanese friends.

“If they catch you, you could be shot or deported back to Sudan,” the Bedouins said.

The 12-hour trip from Cairo was the last leg of a multiyear journey stretching from the violence of Darfur to Sudan’s dangerous capital of Khartoum to the teeming streets of Cairo. Ahmed had been imprisoned in each city.

Israel was their last hope for what Fatima calls “a normal life” without the “fear of being sent back to Sudan.”

Two hours after dusting the sand off their dark clothing, dirtied while crawling under two security fences, their 5-month-old baby’s cry pierced the silence of the frigid Negev air. The response was an Israeli military spotlight.

“Do you know where you are?” the soldiers called out in Arabic.

“Yes,” they answered.

“Why are you here?”

“Because we were mistreated in Egypt.”

“Who are you?”

“We are Sudanese.”

Ahmed lowered his 2-year-old son from his shoulders and held up his Sudanese passport, as well as the worn yellow card given to asylum seekers by the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). The card had been obtained in Cairo and saved them from being deported back to Sudan, as the Egyptian police had threatened.

The Israeli soldiers gave the children their green military coats.

“We were afraid of the Egyptian army, not of the Israeli army,” Ahmed recalled later.

In an often-reluctant ritual that has been repeated almost weekly for two years, involving Sudanese sneaking into Israel, Israel Defense Forces patrols gathered up the tired refugee family, placed them in an ambulance and handed them over to the Border Police. The Border Police sent Ahmed to Ketziot Prison for violating the Infiltration Law, a 1954 statute enacted against enemy combatants.

If the experience of others before him is any precedent, Ahmed could remain incarcerated for at least a year, until Israel figures out what to do with him and the more than 120 other imprisoned Sudanese.

Fatima and the children were sent to a battered women’s shelter in the western Galilee that has largely been taken over by Sudanese refugees whose husbands are in prison.

The failure of the United Nations to cope with the doubling of refugee applications in the past decade or to intervene to prevent the genocide in Darfur has had ripple effects throughout the world. That now includes Israel and the Jewish world.

Faced with genocidal threats from Iran and terrorist groups, a legacy of the Holocaust and even echoes of the Exodus 3,700 years ago, Israel is torn between its commitment to universal humanitarian concerns and its own security interests.

A four-month investigation into the plight of the refugees and the Israeli government’s handling of the situation found a system that even the top Israeli official adjudicating each of the cases has said often violates Israeli and international law.

After two years of legal challenges and growing Israeli media attention, the issue now is coming to a critical juncture.

The practice of arresting and indefinitely detaining Sudanese asylum seekers on security grounds is being tested in the courts, even as Israeli Border Police are showing signs of resisting the orders to arrest and detain the refugees crossing the borders.

Major international human rights figures have embraced the cause, and a handful of Knesset members and activists in Israel are pressing for a resolution of the crisis. Some of these activists, in turn, have strong ties to the American Jewish community, which has embraced the cause of Darfur as a top humanitarian priority. Some 200,000 to 400,000 people have been killed in the Darfur region of western Sudan. Another 2.5 million have been displaced.

Israel’s quandary is a difficult one.

“Sudanese refugees are right now considered enemy nationals since Sudan is an Islamic fundamentalist country,” explained Anat Ben Dor, Israel’s leading refugee rights lawyer, who has emerged as a top advocate for the Sudanese refugees. “Yet Israel is a signatory to the International Convention on Refugees, which guarantees humane treatment and a safe haven from genocide.”

Ben Dor, 40, who directs the Tel Aviv University Law School Refugee Rights Clinic, in late February filed suit against the government for its alleged treatment of three refugees.

Israel helped author the convention in the aftermath of World War II. Jewish refugees fleeing Nazi Germany were routinely refused safe haven because they, like the current Sudanese, were classified as enemy nationals.

Activists enjoyed a small victory on March 21, when Israel’s Supreme Court gave the state 45 days to determine whether the detainees were getting a fair and proper judicial review.

“Bringing justice is the issue here,” said Supreme Court Chief Justice Dorit Beinisch, who is presiding over a three-judge panel hearing the case.

“This is very significant,” said Ben Dor, who together with the Hotline for Migrant Workers, filed the appeal to the court, arguing that those Sudanese arrested and put in jail for illegally entering the country should not be charged as infiltrators of an enemy state.

The petition against Israel’s defense and interior ministers argues that even though 150 Sudanese have been released into alternative detention, the lack of formal judicial review makes the detention illegal.

Under Israeli law, other nationals who sneak through the Sinai Desert into Israel are charged with the Law of Entry. In those cases, the government must review their cases every 30 days and justify their imprisonment. But since Sudanese are considered “enemy nationals,” they are charged under the harsher Infiltration Law, which has no official review mechanism and by which detainees can be held indefinitely.

Irwin Cotler, Canada’s former minister of justice and human rights attorney for such well-known dissidents as Natan Sharansky and Nelson Mandela, has joined with the Israel Bar Association in filing supporting documents on behalf of the Sudanese with the Israeli High Court.

Sudanese Discover Parallels in Visit to Yad Vashem

A group of refugees from Darfur on a visit to Yad Vashem lingered next to a model of the crematorium at Auschwitz, taking in the ghastly sight of bodies carried on cots and pushed into ovens.

They walked through the museum in silence, listening to the words of the guide and trying to understand that the photographs of young boys in sailor suits and girls with silk ribbons in their hair were the same children whose names appeared on the list of those transported to concentration camps and among those killed.

“It’s such a sad history, tears fell from my eyes,” said G, 25, whose parents and two siblings were killed by Arab militiamen when they raided his home village. “It made me remember things that happened in my own past.”

His visit to Israel’s Holocaust memorial was the first time he ever set foot in a museum, and he left hoping that one day the victims of the Darfur genocide might build a similar memorial.

“I hope there will be such a place in the future, but I don’t know when,” he said. “Maybe in another generation far from our own.”

G, who asked that his name not be used, said he escaped on foot from his village the day of the attack. He does not remember how or even where he first ran before he began the long journey through Sudan and Egypt to Israel, where he is seeking asylum.

He spent 15 months in an Israeli jail because of his status as an enemy alien before being released to Kibbutz Yotvata in southern Israel, where he works in the date fields.

Yad Vashem Chair Avner Shalev addressed the group of 11 refugees, saying they might take inspiration from the museum to one day record and document their stories and the story of their people. Although the bloodshed continues in Darfur, Shalev urged them to think about commemoration even now.

“It is important that you already begin to think about ways to remember the events and memorialize the victims,” he said.

“As Jews, who have the memory of the Shoah embedded within us, we cannot stand by as refugees from genocide in Darfur are knocking on our doors,” Shalev said. “The memory of the past and the Jewish values that underpin our existence command us to humanitarian solidarity with the persecuted.”

He reached out to shake hands with the refugees, most of them recently released from prison.

Yad Vashem has been among the more outspoken elements in Israeli society, advocating for a swift and humane response to some 300 Sudanese who have crossed into Israel in recent years via the Egyptian desert. About a third of the migrants are from Darfur; others include Christians who claim they also are victims of persecution. Since Sudan technically is at war with Israel, most of the refugees were put in prison.

Some are being released to kibbutzim and moshavim while they await word on which country might give them political asylum. Israel has yet to officially make such an offer.

The Yad Vashem tour was initiated by the Committee for the Advancement of Refugees From Darfur, which works to assist the Sudanese refugees in Israel.

Robert Rozett, director of the Yad Vashem Libraries, led the group on its tour, explaining the ideology of the Nazis and how they executed their plan to murder the Jews. The Sudanese leaned in to each other, occasionally putting a hand on each other’s shoulders for comfort. Some could be seen wiping away tears.

Some images seemed to hit home especially hard: a blurry photograph of an SS soldier aiming his rifle at a mother who had wrapped her body protectively around her young child, and a portrait of a young woman with sad, empty eyes gazing at a globe and wondering if she would ever find refuge.

The Sudanese, too, live with uncertainty over what country might take them in, and with the memories of relatives and friends killed before their eyes.

The parallels told in the museum felt cruel, including the story of the St. Louis, a ship full of Jewish refugees from Europe that sailed to Cuba in 1939 only to be refused entry. After sailing to the United States and Canada, where it also was refused entry, the ship returned to Germany. Most of its passengers were killed in the Holocaust.

The Sudanese refugees also speak of no one wanting them and of their fears of being deported back to their home country. In Egypt, where many said they were abused and harassed by the authorities, some said they were threatened with being sent back to Sudan.

As Rozett guided the group into a section of the museum documenting roundups from the ghettos to concentration camps, he also talked to them about commemoration.

“You have photographs, you have documents maybe, you have your stories,” he said. “It’s important to know, so people in 50 years will also know” what’s happening.

At the Hall of Names, the repository for Yad Vashem’s collection of “Pages of Testimony” — short biographies of each Holocaust victim — the group gathered in a semicircle and looked up at the photographs of some victims. As they peered up at the faces, Rozett reminded them, “They don’t have a cemetery, but they do have a page.”

“It was very hard; I was shocked,” said M, 24, from Darfur. “It reminded me of my own people, seeing the killings, the shootings. I want to say that I am sorry that this happened to the Jews.”

G said it will take him a long time to digest what he saw at Yad Vashem.

“People were supposed to learn from history,” he said. “But still it happens now. In 1994 in Rwanda and now in Darfur. I thought the world was supposed to learn.”

From Darfur to Israel: A Family’s Perilous Exodus

“We left Sudan, took a boat on the Nile to Aswan and went to Cairo to seek protection at the United Nations office,” said Ahmed, sitting in Ketziot, a maximum-security Israeli prison near the Egyptian border.

Some 150 miles away, sitting in the office of a women’s crisis center in the western Galilee, Ahmed’s wife, Fatima, learns of her husband’s whereabouts from this reporter. They had not seen each other since Dec. 29, when they sneaked into Israel with their three children.

“My husband was arrested in Darfur and then in Khartoum,” said Fatima, her head wrapped in a blue scarf, with her children beside her. “We had to leave.”

Knesset members and the Israeli media have been barred from Ketziot, where dozens of Sudanese are being detained. But JTA was granted an exclusive interview and entrance to the Negev prison.

Together, the husband and wife pieced together their story.

From Darfur, where he was imprisoned and tortured, Ahmed and his family made their way to Khartoum, where he was similarly arrested. Seeing that the Sudanese capital was not safe, they went to Egypt.

Even as he sits in an Israeli prison, Ahmed’s fate and the fate of his fellow refugees could still be determined by Egypt. Both the government of Israel and the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) would prefer to see the deportation of the refugees in Israel back to Egypt, if they were guaranteed not be to be deported back to Sudan.

Ahmed’s family was among the tens of thousands of Sudanese who have sought safe haven in Cairo, with the hopes of being recognized as refugees by the United Nations and therefore eligible for asylum in a third country.

Egypt’s handling of the current Sudanese refugee crisis can be traced to a 1996 assassination attempt, in which extremist Egyptians had been plotting for months in Sudan to kill Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak.

Although the assassination attempt failed to kill the Egyptian leader, it did lead to a change in policy for Sudanese entering Egypt. For half a century, some 2 million Sudanese had entered Egypt without a visa and had unrestricted access to employment, education and health care.

According to UNHCR’s Cairo office, between 1994 and 2005, 58,535 Sudanese nationals sought safe haven in Egypt, with two-thirds coming from either the Darfur region, where some 200,000 to 400,000 people have been killed and another 2.5 million displaced, or the south, where an estimated 1.5 million Sudanese, mostly Christians, were killed in a 21-year civil war.

By the end of 2005, 31,990 Sudanese were granted refugee status in Cairo and obtained the coveted U.N. blue card that certifies their refugee status and qualifies them as candidates for resettlement to third countries, mostly the United States, Canada and Australia. About half of those were actually resettled, but another 13,327 were still in limbo, and they were becoming increasingly frustrated.

“I went to the U.N. office,” and was told “to come back in six months for an interview,” Ahmed said. “He went back six months later, and they said they had to wait another six months,” Fatima said.

On Sept. 29, 2005, at the start of Ramadan, Sudanese refugees moved into Mustafa Mahmoud Park, put up protest banners and received the protection of the Egyptian police.

“We lived in the park with the other families, across from the United Nations office for three months,” Fatima said. “It was very hard to find work, to feed my family,” recalled Ahmed, who has been transferred to an Israeli prison near Ramle. “I joined the demonstrations.”

The demonstrators wanted UNHCR to resume processing applications for asylum, which had been suspended for all Sudanese since June 2004, when a cease-fire was announced in southern Sudan.

At 1 a.m. on Dec. 30, 2005, 4,000 Egyptian security force members surrounded 2,000 Sudanese protesters. First came the water canons, Ahmed and Fatima recalled. They clubbed Fatima, then three months pregnant, in the stomach. Ahmed saw five people, including two children, killed. Fatima’s aunt was shot point-blank. The official death toll in front of UNHCR’s Cairo headquarters was 27.

“They took us all to jail, each one to a different lockup,” Fatima recalled. “There, they tortured me, gave me no food and I learned that they did the same to my husband. Only later did I learn from my children that each of them was alone.

“Only when my 2 1/2-year-old began crying did the police take him around to other jails to see if anyone could identify him. My 8-year-old daughter identified him and told the police that he was her brother. They were allowed to be together, but they weren’t given food for long periods.

“After five days, they released me, and I began looking for my children. I went from jail to jail until I found them.”

Ahmed said he was freed a week after his wife.

They threatened “that we would be deported to Sudan.” That is when “I decided we are going to leave Egypt and go to Israel to seek protection. We were not safe in Egypt.”

The UNHCR office in Cairo did not respond to repeated requests for comment.

Ahmed said he kept his departure plan secret from everyone, including Fatima. Visiting an Internet cafe in Cairo, he was able to find friends from Darfur who were resettled in the United States and Canada. With earphones on, sitting next to the computer, the Darfurian with a seventh-grade education used a computer voice communications program to plead with his friends to send him money, but he didn’t say what it was for.

When the money arrived, he told Fatima of his plans to escape with the family to Israel, arranged for the Bedouin smugglers and set out to cross the Sinai Desert.

“The Bedouins said that I was going to be taken to prison, and that Fatima would be taken to a shelter in the north,” Ahmed said. “But at least we would be safe.”

Yosef Israel Abramowitz is an award-winning journalist and founder of socialaction.com. Abramowitz, who moved with his family last year to Israel, blogs daily at peoplehood.org. JTA correspondent Dina Kraft in Israel contributed to this piece. The names of the refugees have been changed to protect them from reprisals against family members in Arab countries.

Israel Policy of Imprisoning Refugees Being Challenged

Israeli activists and lawmakers are challenging in court the current policy of incarcerating Sudanese refugees who illegally enter the country under a law dealing with “enemy nationals” that allows them to be detained indefinitely.

The majority of the refugees made the trek across the Sinai Desert after Egyptian police violently broke up a demonstration outside the headquarters of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, or (UNHCR), in Cairo at the end of 2005.

A year ago at Passover, activists petitioned the Israeli courts, claiming that it was illegal to incarcerate the Sudanese refugees under what is known as the “infiltration law,” because it does not allow for individual judicial review.

As a result of that challenge, the government appointed a special investigator, Eldad Azar, to interview the prisoners and make recommendations to the minister of defense on the status of each one.

Of the dozens of cases Azar has reviewed, he hasn’t found one that represents a security threat, said Anat Ben Dor of Tel Aviv University, who has been instrumental in challenging the legality of the detentions.

Azar did not return phone calls, and the Ministry of Defense did not respond to repeated requests for an interview.

But in Defense Ministry documents of the cases obtained by JTA, Azar routinely concludes that “the prisoner is eligible under the U.N. refugee convention,” meaning the prisoner is a legitimate refugee and not a security threat or terrorist. In the documents, Azar often points out that the prisoner is “held without a proper arrest document” and frequently recommends that the prisoner “should be freed for humanitarian reasons.”

Among the cases is UNHCR Case Isr114, a father of three who fled Darfur after being arrested and detained for 10 days, was arrested again in Khartoum, then again in Cairo before fleeing to Israel on April 25, 2006.

Azar concludes: “From the minute he arrived in Israel, there is no returning the prisoner to Sudan, because of the danger that is expected from the authorities if they are alerted that he was in Israel.”

In 1985 a coup d’etat brought control of Sudan into the hands of Islamic fundamentalists and Omar al-Bashir, who had fought in the Egyptian army during the Yom Kippur War against Israel.

Based on the documents, a significant number of cases involve sloppy paperwork or lack of due process, Dor said. She has sued for damages on behalf of some of the prisoners and is a principal in the petition before Israel’s High Court, which is challenging the legalities of the detentions.

“There have been serious, systemic violations of the basic right to liberty,” Dor said.

Her goal, she said, is to free the prisoners and enable future asylum seekers to be able to go directly to the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees and skip prison.

According to an Israeli Interior Ministry official, “On the one hand, Israel is obligated not to return refugees to a place where their lives are likely to be endangered. On the other hand, the matter raises security-related and diplomatic issues.”

Dor has some new, unlikely allies in her efforts to keep the refugees out of prison.

On Jan. 10, two Sudanese slipped under the Egyptian-Israeli border fence and, like hundreds before them, gave themselves up to the Israel Defense Forces. But in what is believed to be a first, the Border Police refused to take them. Reportedly they were fed up with imprisoning Sudanese refugees.

The IDF had intelligence officials check out the two Sudanese and concluded “their intentions are not national [security] and therefore they do not require the services of the Prison Authority,” according to a confidential IDF document obtained by JTA.

The Sudanese were dropped off at the Beersheva central bus station by a sympathetic IDF officer, who told them to go directly to the UNHCR office in Jerusalem.

Since then, IDF or Border Police have circumvented the prison services four more times, interviewed the Sudanese themselves, determined they were not a threat and brought them to Beersheva. Individual soldiers gave them bus money to make their way to the UNHCR offices for an interview.

Some involved in the issue say Israel has made it more difficult for the refugees to be resettled to third countries because they were imprisoned in Israel.

Michael Bavli, the UNHCR representative in Israel, said no third country is willing to take the Sudanese refugees, because each country will follow the security lead set by Israel. The thinking would be, he said, that they are imprisoned in Israel, which knows what it is doing security-wise, so they must be a security risk.

Bavli said it was concerns over future resettlement for the Sudanese that spurred those involved in the issue to seek alternative detention, placing the refugees on kibbutzim.

“Within six months on a kibbutz, we’ll find them an alternative country, because suddenly they are not criminals who are sitting in Israeli prisons,” he said.

Bavli and UNHCR have approached Australia and the United States, among other countries.

Eytan Schwartz of the Committee for the Advancement of Refugees from Darfur, a coalition of groups involved in the issue, said, “The ideal solution” would be twofold: first, to speed up the release of the refugees detained in prison to a kibbutz or a moshav, then grant asylum to at least some of the refugees, while stressing that the move is a one-time deal.

“This would demonstrate Israel’s willingness to help a community in distress and comply with the country’s moral and international obligations,” Schwartz said. “At the same time, Israel should make it clear that the Sudanese refugee problem should be dealt with by the international community and cannot become an Israeli problem.”

Schwartz said it is important for the Israeli government “to recognize some of them as refugees, because we believe that unless Israel accepts at least some of them, no other Western nation would be prepared to take the rest of them in.”

A U.S. State Department official confirmed that Israel has asked for assistance in resettling the refugees. Despite the quiet fact that 55 “enemy nationals” — mostly Iraqis — have been resettled from Israel to third countries, the Israelis “don’t want to encourage the arrival of more refugees.”

World Briefs

Lieberman Blasts Saudis

Saudi Arabia must reduce its support for terror or suffer
the consequences, Democratic presidential candidate Joseph Lieberman said.
Speaking Sunday in New York, the Connecticut senator said he told the Saudis
during his recent trip through the Middle East that if they don’t change their
backing for terror, “our relationship with them will not go on as before.” More
than 1,000 people attended the program in which Lieberman and his wife were
interviewed by Rabbi David Woznica from The Jewish Federation of Greater Los
Angeles at the 92nd St. Y. Others watched by video hookup in cities across North

The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom
reportedly recommended that Secretary of State Colin Powell name Saudi Arabia a
“country of particular concern.” The move by the government agency opens the
possibility of diplomatic or economic sanctions against the Saudis, according
to The Washington Post.

Jewish P.M. in Holland?

Amsterdam’s mayor is trying to become Holland’s first Jewish
prime minister. Job Cohen could assume the nation’s highest post if his Labor
Party wins Wednesday’s elections. Labor is running neck and neck in opinion
polls with the ruling Christian Democrats. Cohen was nominated as Labor’s
candidate for the premiership on Sunday.

Conservative Movement to Open Yeshiva

The Conservative movement is launching a one-year yeshiva
program in Jerusalem this fall. The Conservative Yeshiva’s program is designed
for high school graduates who want a year of Jewish study before beginning
college. The program was slated to begin last fall, but the opening was
postponed “to allow for more intensive recruitment efforts,” according to a
statement from the Conservative movement.

Rabbi Sentenced to Life

A New Jersey rabbi was sentence to life in prison for hiring
two men to kill his wife. Capping a nine-year drama, the sentence was handed
down Jan. 16 after Fred Neulander was convicted last November of murder and conspiracy
to commit murder in the death of his wife, Carol. Wearing a waist shackle,
handcuffs and bright orange prison overalls, Neulander sat silently as Carol Neulander’s
three siblings took turns describing him as a cold, narcissistic, selfish
killer of a loving and caring person, according to Court TV.

Two of Neulander’s adult children, in letters read aloud in
the packed courtroom, said they wanted nothing to do with the man they
described as “evil” and “maniacal.”

Iranian Student Wins Asylum

A Yeshiva University student who fled Iran because of
anti-Semitism has won asylum in the United States. The 20-year-old student,
whose identity is being kept private for fear that relatives still in Iran
would face persecution, recently won political asylum, according to the Hebrew
Immigrant Aid Society (HIAS). The student arrived in the United States as a
tourist with his family in 1998, but remained when they returned home.

His parents faced increasing anti-Semitism at a time when 13
Iranian Jews were accused of spying for Israel, and HIAS helped the other
family members flee to Vienna.

Pro-Israel Ad Features MLK

A new pro-Israel TV ad features the words of slain civil
rights leader the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. The ad, sponsored by the
Washington-based Center for Security Policy, features King saying, “Israel must
exist.” It ends with a voiceover: “Martin Luther King understood courage. Stand
with Israel.”

Al Hirschfeld Dies at 99

Al Hirschfeld, who drew caricatures of Broadway
personalities for more than 75 years, died Monday in New York at 99. He was
known for his drawings of personalities ranging from the Marx Brothers to Carol
Channing to Sammy Davis Jr., many of which appeared in The New York Times. “My
contribution is to take the character — created by the playwright and acted out
by the author — and reinvent it for the reader,” he said. Among Hirschfeld’s
drawings is one of the late Chabad-Lubavitch rebbe, Menachem Mendel Schneerson.

Briefs courtesy Jewish Telegraphic Agency.